Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Bad Air Days From 9/11 Hit Brooklyn Hard
By Paul Moses, Newsday, November 14, 2002

Paul Moses, a former city editor at Newsday, teaches journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY.

Maybe New Yorkers could not have handled any more bad news right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. The highest priority, we were told, was to get life back to normal. Still, it would have been better if Christie Whitman, the former New Jersey governor who heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, had said something like this:

"Residents of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn who have respiratory problems should be especially cautious, because the cloud drifting over them contains particulates that can aggravate their condition and lead to hospitalization. People with cardio-vascular disease face a heightened risk of heart attack. Children - even those without a respiratory problem - need to be protected as well, because particulate pollution can cause them difficulty in breathing."

Instead, the news was always reassuring. On Sept. 18, 2001, for example, Whitman announced, "I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C., that their air is safe to breathe." And on Oct. 3, 2001, Whitman said there was "no evidence of any significant public health hazard to residents, visitors or workers beyond the immediate World Trade Center area. ... There is no need for concern among the general public."

Whitman's announcements notwithstanding, the air wasn't safe to breathe for many people - in Manhattan or in Brooklyn. As Newsday reported back on Aug. 23, the number of respiratory patients doubled at some Brooklyn hospitals after the terrorist attack. The reason is no surprise: A NASA satellite photograph showed clearly that the trail of smoke and debris cut straight across the borough.

To people in my neighborhood, Marine Park, that comes as no surprise, either. There, on Brooklyn's southern tier and far from Manhattan, the winds bore soot, acrid smells and bits of singed paper from brokerage houses. One woman I know found not only brokerage records but also a page from the Book of Job, burnt at the edges.

As Newsday reported, the winds followed a similar path more than 80 percent of the time until the fires finally died out on Dec. 14. During that time, state Department of Environmental Conservation monitoring stations in Brooklyn produced some spectacular spikes in their hourly reports on particulates, microscopic debris spewing in the cloud from lower Manhattan.

When averaged out over 24 hours, the readings are within limits the federal government deems safe. According to Peter Iwanowicz, director of environmental health at the American Lung Association of New York State, exposure to particulates for even a few hours can be dangerous for many people.

Morton Lippman, professor of environmental medicine at the NYU School of Medicine, said in an e-mail interview that "the dust plume that passed over Brooklyn after the collapse of the WTC towers was composed largely of crushed concrete and gypsum, which are quite alkaline. Thus respiratory tract irritation sufficient to cause hospital visits should have been no surprise. The unresolved question at this time is whether longer-term health responses will be seen."

The EPA says that Whitman was relying on scientific data when she announced last year that the air was safe to breathe. But scientists now say that they didn't realize the particular mixture stirred up by the World Trade Center attack would be as hazardous as it turned out to be. The size of the tiny particles was measured, but not the high level of toxic metals, some experts say.

Facing the obvious - workers in the EPA's own Manhattan office developed World Trade Center cough - clean-up efforts were begun in lower Manhattan. Last month, a federal agency reported that a study of indoor dust samples in lower Manhattan found that there was no health hazard - "provided that recommended cleaning measures are followed."

Brooklynites have gotten no such study and no such warning. The EPA continues to hide behind its data when it comes to Brooklyn. As a result, city and federal agencies have given short shrift to Brooklyn, focusing all their efforts on lower Manhattan.

A few Brooklyn elected officials, such as Council member David Yassky and Rep. Nydia Velazquez, have pursued the issue. But it seems to have eluded statewide and citywide elected officials, the same people who flock to the state's most populous borough for votes.

It's to be expected that federal officials - whether safeguarding against toxins or terrorists - will not voluntarily step forward and admit serious mistakes. Real answers will only come if elected officials and the news media insist.

This article contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my efforts to advance understanding of democracy, economic, environmental, human rights, political, scientific, and social justice issues, among others. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material in this article is distributed without profit for research and educational purposes.

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