Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article|
Something sinister in
the air over Manhattan
By Oliver Burkeman, The UK Guardian,
February 8, 2002
There have been
isolated threats of litigation over a cough blamed by Manhattanites on substances leaking
from Ground Zero, but it is unclear what will happen next, writes Oliver Burkeman. The
salvage workers at Ground Zero call it World Trade Centre cough: a tingling, unshiftable,
back-of-the-throat irritation that the fire department says is affecting a quarter of its
Other people report nosebleeds, itchy eyes, sore throats and headaches.
Students returning to Stuyvesant high school, a stone's throw from the site, have not been
able to rid themselves of a curious rash that has afflicted them since they returned last
month. But everyone agrees on the persistent, vaguely metallic-tasting cough. And,
notwithstanding the reassurances of city authorities, a growing chorus of angry residents
and firefighters claim accumulating evidence shows there is something sinister in the air
in lower Manhattan.
Breathing in New York has never been a hazard-free pursuit: well into
the 1960s, when many of the city's apartment buildings were still coal-heated and boasted
their own incinerator in the basement, the belching fumes had an unpleasant habit of
getting trapped by blankets of cold air over the city. In 1963, the resulting smog killed
405 people; three years later, the figure was 168 - and would have been higher if New
Yorkers had not taken to walking the streets wearing hospital masks. Then came the Clean
Air Act of 1970, and three decades of improving air, and still the city went on to become
the birthplace of the oxygen cafe. And then came September 11.
As three major investigations in the Wall Street Journal, the
Washington Post and USA Today have shown in recent days, the terrorist attacks were
several environmental health catastrophes in one. Tonnes of jet fuel exploded, two
buildings were reduced to rubble, thousands of computers containing potentially dangerous
flame retardants melted to nothing, and tens of apartment buildings nearby sustained
varying degrees of damage from the blasts - to say nothing of the dust that blew in
through their open windows. The cocktail of hazardous substances involved includes
asbestos (a carcinogen), benzene (which can cause leukaemia), lead (which damages
kidneys), PCBs and dioxins (which cause brain damage).
Of course, the fact that the cleanup at Ground Zero seems to be
degenerating into one big argument could partly be interpreted as a hugely encouraging
sign. The New York tabloids had a decidedly back-to-business feel this week as they
lambasted President George Bush for seeming to backtrack on $5bn of his $20bn pledge to
fund reconstruction in lower Manhattan, apparently helping to force an embarrassing
reversal the very next day. If New Yorkers are falling out once again with their Texan
president, this line of reasoning goes, things really must be getting back to normal.
But the World Trade Centre cough is more troubling. Weeks after the
attacks, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Christie Todd Whitman,
was reassuring residents of the area that "their air is safe to breathe and their
water is safe to drink ... the air, while smoky, is not dangerous". The agency seemed
to have the test results to prove it, and it made them public. But it was not until a New
York pressure group filed a freedom-of-information request that the agency published some
different test results - this time showing much higher readings for lead and benzene.
Private companies carrying out asbestos tests have found much higher levels than the
EPA's, because, some argue, the government's tests could not pick up the fine dust which
seeped into the surrounding buildings.
Local residents have been looking through the windows of their homes at
men and women clad in protective bodysuits scouring the sidewalks to remove the last
specks of dust - and wondering why nobody seems to have thought to check inside their
apartments. The EPA said last month it had done no asbestos testing indoors.
It is not entirely clear what happens next. The watchdog monitoring the
EPA is investigating its testing in the days after the attacks. A thousand New York
firefighters have filed notices permitting them to sue the city if they choose. Others who
might have a case include volunteers who were told by city authorities to wear paper masks
- but not told that only a few brands would actually protect them from asbestos. But so
far, there have only been isolated threats of litigation, and nothing like a city-level
policy for how to cope with what might one day, perhaps, turn into a disastrous cancer
cluster. As the eyes of the world drift away from ground zero to the axis of evil, Lower
Manhattan waits, nervously, and coughs.
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