Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Anxieties over toxins rise at Ground Zero
Charisse Jones, USA Today, February 7, 2002

    NEW YORK -- In the neighborhoods closest to the site of the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history, a new fear has taken hold. Despite assertions by local and federal officials that the air downtown is safe to breathe, many who live and work there remain concerned about toxins such as lead, PCBs and asbestos that the terrorist attacks may have left behind.
    Since the attacks Sept. 11, many recovery workers, residents and students downtown have complained of tightness in their chests, bloody noses, sinus infections and other respiratory ailments. Roughly one in four firefighters who have been working at Ground Zero have what some are calling ''World Trade Center cough'' or another respiratory complaint, fire department officials say. About 750 have had to take medical leave, according to the firefighters' union.
    Tests of eight Port Authority employees working at Ground Zero showed elevated levels of mercury in their blood. Though no one is certain that working at the site caused the problem, subsequent tests found that the mercury levels of six workers returned to normal after they were reassigned. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency and local health officials are under fire from politicians and others who accuse them of failing to adequately inform the public about potential long-term health risks from asbestos, heavy metals and various chemicals. They say officials downplayed negative test results of such substances as benzene, dioxins and PCBs and have been slow in releasing test findings to the public.
    The EPA disputes those criticisms and says the outdoor air downtown poses no long-term health risks.The interiors of at least a few buildings, however, were coated with enough asbestos to be subject to EPA rules for asbestos cleanup. A private scientific firm hired by elected officials, for example, found high asbestos levels in dust at two apartment buildings near Ground Zero. EPA rules require that any dust or debris containing more than 1% asbestos be handled according to special rules, not just swept up by homeowners.
    Though several scientists say it appears that the levels of chemicals were not present in high enough amounts and that exposure was too minimal to cause long-range concerns, many of the toxins can have serious effects. Long-term exposure to many of these substances can cause major health problems. Asbestos can cause cancer. PCBs from electronic components and benzene from burning jet fuel are also carcinogens. Dioxins, particulates released in a fire, can be carcinogenic and cause reproductive problems. Long-term exposure to lead can cause neurological damage. And PBDEs -- a flame retardant often found in computers, foam padding and plastics -- are likened to PCBs and could also be present.
    Critics also say officials have not done sufficient testing inside buildings and have failed to oversee proper cleaning of apartments and businesses. Several community organizations have conducted their own indoor tests and say their findings suggest that the potential health risks are greater than officials have indicated. Parents and teachers at P.S. 89 went to court to delay last Monday's scheduled reopening of the elementary school in nearby Battery Park City. They were concerned about the air quality and questioned whether the children are ready to return to the area near the Trade Center. School officials are trying to work out a timetable agreeable to the parents.
    The EPA's ombudsman is investigating whether the agency has been slow releasing test results and whether it knew its asbestos testing might be flawed. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has accused the EPA of maintaining a double standard by cleaning its offices six blocks from Ground Zero more thoroughly than it advised others to clean their buildings.
    On Monday, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate clean air subcommittee, will hold a hearing in New York on downtown air quality at the request of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. ''Because there was absolutely no oversight on the city's part, we don't know what lurks in people's apartments or businesses,'' says Madelyn Wils, chairwoman of the community's advisory committee.
    Wils lives six blocks from the World Trade Center and suffered a sore throat, laryngitis and a sinus infection for a few months after the attacks. ''If you washed your walls and didn't clean your drapes, could you have asbestos on your drapes?'' she asks. ''If you didn't get rid of your children's toys, and they have stuffed animals, could they have asbestos? Probably.''
    In a survey of Lower Manhattan by the city health department and other agencies in October, 34% of the 414 respondents said they did not feel that their homes were safe to live in. In each of three neighborhoods profiled, roughly 80% of those with safety concerns were worried about air quality, and 35% of those surveyed wanted more information about proper cleaning.

Testing outdoors
    The EPA says it has been vigilant in sharing information, meeting with various agencies, regularly updating its Web site and even maintaining a lab near Ground Zero. The lab performs daily tests for toxins and gives the results immediately to workers at the site. ''Based on our findings, and now really more than 10,000 samples of a wide range of substances, we have found no significant long-term risk posed by the outdoor air,'' EPA spokeswoman Bonnie Bellow said last week.
    Many ailments are likely to clear up and can be attributed to the pulverized concrete and fiberglass that filled the air after the twin towers collapsed, as well as the fires that burned at Ground Zero until late December, medical experts say. Though some of the substances unleashed by the disaster are known to be long-term health hazards, ''for the most part, people didn't get a high enough or long enough exposure for long-term concerns,'' says Paul Lioy, associate director of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute in Piscataway, N.J. ''But,'' he adds, ''there's enough anecdotal information out there that some good solid studies need to be done to confirm or deny the effects being observed.''
    Several studies are underway. Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City is examining how substances such as heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins and other pollutants might affect pregnant women. City health officials plan to start a registry of those near Ground Zero during the disaster. The Fire Department is monitoring roughly 11,000 firefighters and emergency technicians who spent time at the site for exposure to substances such as heavy metals and mercury. The EPA also is conducting several studies on exposure and toxicity at and near the site.
    Ultimately, any potential risk might depend on the level of exposure and for how long. For example, a worker caught in the first toxic plume on Sept. 11 might develop different health problems than a resident who was away but returned days later to an apartment coated with dust. Scientists are trying to figure out these different health risks.
    Part of what makes long-term health predictions so difficult is that several calamities occurred at once on Sept. 11. Jet fuel exploded, office equipment melted in the searing fire and two skyscrapers collapsed, releasing an array of substances that might have combined in unusual ways. ''So you have all sorts of things that people never (before) breathed all at the same time, and in quantities that we're just not used to,'' Lioy says.
    The EPA has been checking the air, drinking water and river sediments for asbestos, lead, metals, benzene, dioxin and other substances. Both federal and city officials say there were sporadic spikes in asbestos, particularly right after the attacks, but the levels have decreased over time. City health officials say lead levels have not been higher than what is normally seen in New York City dust. The EPA has taken 283 air samples since September for lead and found only five above the federal acceptable standards for adults and children. Unhealthful levels of dioxins and PCBs measured by the EPA have been concentrated only over Ground Zero, where workers must wear protective equipment while removing debris from the site.
    Even so, some residents in the area say they believe that officials were premature in declaring it safe to return to Lower Manhattan shortly after the attacks. ''I don't know if they intentionally misled us, but they seem to have given conflicting statements,'' resident Dennis Gault says about the EPA. ''My concern is for the children in the neighborhood. . . . The asbestos, over 20 or 30 years, G-d knows what will be the effects. And then the PCBs and the heavy metals are also quite frightening.''

Testing indoors
    On Sept. 11, Gault's wife called him at work. He rushed to their apartment in Gateway Plaza, about 300 yards from the World Trade Center. He shut the windows, then ''we put the baby in the stroller, and we ran for our lives.'' When Gault returned home a week later, he noticed a dark powder coated the apartment, he recalls. Gault, 36, had to toss away most of the furniture and his 3-year-old daughter's toys. The apartment has been cleaned twice, but a residue remains, he says. ''There was no testing of the air in my apartment that I know of, so I don't know what the levels of asbestos were or the other toxins,'' says Gault, a teacher.
    He went back home in December to be closer to his job, while his wife and daughter continue to stay with his in-laws. But he says his family may have to rent another apartment. ''Before they come back, I'd like to have my apartment tested,'' says Gault, who does not have renter's insurance to cover the costs. ''After all the cleaning I've done myself and the cleaning by others, if there's still levels of toxins in here, I'm going to relocate. Because for a 3-year-old, there is no safe level of toxins.''
    ''I think the problem has moved inside to a lot of buildings,'' says Joel Kupferman, executive director of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project. ''What we have is many time bombs that are ticking, that only after full testing, monitoring (and) proper cleanup . . . will we know if the situation is safe.'' One independent industrial hygienist retained by Kupferman's organization took samples at a 52-story apartment complex downtown after the building cleanup began and came up with a reading of 550,000 asbestos fibers per square centimeter. The acceptable limit is 500-1,000 fibers per square centimeter. ''It's definitely an indication that there's a high level of asbestos in the building,'' Kupferman says.
    EPA officials say city agencies were in charge of indoor testing in Lower Manhattan. But the EPA still advised that homes and businesses be professionally cleaned. ''We have from the start been clear that what we found on the outside was likely to have gotten inside people's apartments,'' Bellow says. ''And if people were returning to dusty offices and homes, they could assume that that material was asbestos-containing and that they needed to get that material cleaned up using professional contractors.''
    Some people say they want the EPA to step in and oversee the indoor cleanup. Others say the city has failed to look out for those in Lower Manhattan. ''Overall, the responsibility for coordinating environmental response belonged to the city of New York,'' says Eric Goldstein of the Natural Resources Defense Council. City health officials say that before any building was reoccupied, landlords were required to properly assess the building's safety. The health department issued an advisory on how to adequately clean building interiors, and the city's Department of Environmental Protection handles any specific concerns about a building.
    Then, there are the schools. Another rift has emerged over whether schools remain unsafe. Seven downtown schools were relocated after Sept. 11, and students have been returning on a staggered schedule after their schools are cleaned and declared safe. Two reopened Monday. Students at Stuyvesant High School, one of the city's premier high schools, located a few blocks from Ground Zero, went back in October. Some parents say their children have suffered from rashes, nosebleeds and other health problems since returning. The barge where debris from Ground Zero is being toted each day sits in the Hudson River next to the school, and that continually exposes the students to toxins, parents and environmental activists say.
    Fernando Pacifico noticed that his 17-year-old daughter has not been well since returning to Stuyvesant. Since she was a freshman, she had missed about three school days a year. But since October, she has been out six days, sick with a sore throat or headache. ''Basically, they moved the World Trade Center debris right behind the school,'' says Pacifico, who is a physician. School board officials say the downtown schools now have thicker ventilation filters. The indoor and outdoor air quality is tested daily. Nevertheless, school board spokeswoman Catie Marshall concedes that such precautions may not be enough. ''It's easy to test air and find the air contains nothing hazardous,'' she says. ''It's harder to convey that message to people who are nervous.''
    Lisa Phillips owns an apartment in Tribeca, near the Trade Center site, and lives there with her 2-year-old twins. They moved away briefly after Sept. 11. Now, she says, the air has largely cleared, though questions remain. ''It's home,'' Phillips says. ''And in such unsettling times, there's comfort in being home, even if home is close to Ground Zero.''


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