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
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
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
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.
FAIR USE NOTICE
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.
Take me back to learn more