Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

NYCOSH testimony on post-9/11 Lower Manhattan contamination: Delivered to the New York City Council's joint meeting of the Select Committee on Lower Manhattan Redevelopment and the Committee on Health.
Testimony of David M. Newman, M.A., M.S., Industrial Hygienist New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH)
MARCH 29, 2004

My name is David Newman. I am an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). NYCOSH is an independent, non-profit, union-based health and safety organization located here in Manhattan. Over 200 local unions and other labor and community organizations in the metropolitan area are members of NYCOSH, as are several hundred individual workplace safety and health activists, healthcare and legal professionals, and concerned citizens. NYCOSH has been providing technical assistance and comprehensive training in occupational safety and health to unions, employers, government agencies, and community organizations for twenty-five years.

Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001 and continuing to this day, NYCOSH, in partnership with the National Disaster Ministries of the United Church of Christ, has worked closely with unions, employers, and non-profit, immigrant, community, and tenant organizations at Ground Zero and throughout Lower Manhattan. This work has included outdoor and indoor environmental sampling, assessment of the safety and healthfulness of affected workplaces and residences, help with design or evaluation of sampling, cleanup, and re-occupancy protocols, and technical assistance with building ventilation and filtration issues.

NYCOSH serves as an information clearinghouse for area workers, unions, employers, and residents. NYCOSH, in collaboration with the Queens College Center for the Biology of Natural Systems and the Latin American Workers' Project, operated a mobile medical unit near Ground Zero which provided free medical screenings for immigrant day laborers engaged in the cleanup of contaminated offices and residences. We provided respirators to hundreds of area workers, along with changeout filter cartridges, fit-testing, and training in proper respirator use. In addition, NYCOSH has provided training in occupational safety and health to hundreds of area workers. NYCOSH continues to collect and evaluate environmental sampling results and other pertinent data from both public and private sources and to consult with scientific and medical experts to ensure that our information about environmental and occupational health conditions in Lower Manhattan is comprehensive, accurate, and current.

The events of 9/11 and thereafter resulted in arguably the worst environmental disaster in the history of New York City. Two and a half years later, we still do not have a good understanding of the nature and extent of contamination associated with those events. Although government agencies have collected hundreds of thousands of sampling results, neither EPA nor any other agency has designed or implemented a systematic, comprehensive testing program. EPA has characterized every major chemical or hazardous waste release in the country over the last 20 years, except for Lower Manhattan. As a result, the available data is still not adequate to draw any scientifically valid conclusion of safety or risk.

So what do we know today? We know that contaminated outdoor air was largely cleansed over time by wind and rain. However, contaminants that made their way indoors are likely to remain for long periods of time if they are not subjected to targeted cleanup efforts. They can repeatedly settle out and be re-suspended in indoor air, where they are available for inhalation by occupants. It is possible for indoor concentrations to increase to higher levels than outdoor concentrations.

We know that very few of the environmental samples collected by government agencies are indoor samples. Thus, very little is definitively known about indoor conditions. There has been no government effort to systematically collect or evaluate the tens of thousands of indoor environmental samples collected by private businesses and organizations. In the single effort of which I am aware, New York City Department of Environmental Protection requested downtown building owners to submit information on environmental hazard assessments and cleanup efforts. The few responses were not evaluated or shared with the public by DEP.

We know that there have been only two government studies of indoor contaminants downtown. A December 2001 study by the New York City Department of Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that 13% of residential dust samples contained greater than 1% asbestos by weight. The percentage of fiberglass in indoor dust samples ranged from 2% to 35%. Note that these levels of contamination were found after most of the sampled apartments had been cleaned. A summer 2003 study by EPA found that 14% of tested apartments had lead levels before cleaning that exceeded the agency's cleanup benchmark of 25 micrograms per square foot. Although these results may not be representative of all downtown apartments, they clearly indicate a potential for more widespread indoor contamination.

We know that independent tests have found elevated indoor levels of asbestos at 105 Duane Street, 90 Church Street, 345 Chambers Street, 233 Broadway, and 19 Rector Street. Elevated indoor levels of lead have been found at 345 Chambers Street and 199 Chambers Street. Elevated indoor levels of mercury have been found at 90 Church Street and 45 Warren Street. Elevated indoor levels of silica have been found at 114 Liberty Street. Elevated indoor levels of dioxin have been found at 30 West Broadway.

In fact, with regard to dioxin, EPA itself has stated "It would be reasonable to conclude that the concentrations to which individuals could be potentially exposed ... within and near the WTC site through the latter part of November are likely the highest ambient concentrations that have ever been reported." (Exposure And Human Health Evaluation Of Airborne Pollution From The World Trade Center Disaster, Oct. 2002)

We know that government agencies downplayed and continue to downplay the extent and significance of threats to public health and to the environment in Lower Manhattan. As a result, the city did not utilize in Lower Manhattan the aggressive emergency measures to protect public health and the environment which it has employed in previous disaster response operations.

We know that neither EPA nor any other agency provided technical guidance or assistance to landlords and employers in the effective and safe removal of indoor contaminants. We know that NYC DOHMH did not establish re-occupancy guidelines to minimize health risk before the return to workplaces or residences.

We know that of that, of approximately 23,000 apartments below Canal Street, EPA cleaned or tested 4,167. In other words, 82% of downtown apartments have not been cleaned or tested under the EPA program. How many of these are or were contaminated? We do not know, nor is there any mechanism in place for finding out. We do know that mechanical ventilation systems were largely excluded from residential cleanup efforts. We know that in some cases independent tests found elevated levels of contaminants subsequent to EPA cleanup.

We know that the approximately 1,500 commercial and institutional buildings in Lower Manhattan, including offices, schools, and fire houses, were excluded from EPA's testing and cleaning efforts. In the absence of guidelines, directives, oversight, or enforcement from government agencies, the response of employers and landlords ran the gamut from appropriate testing and effective cleanup to neither.

We know that, as a result, tens of thousands of workers and tenants have been left on their own to trust whatever their employers and landlords told them.

We know that thousands of transit, sanitation, utility, telephone and other workers were exposed or potentially exposed to toxic contaminants during the rescue, clean up, and re-occupancy process without being appropriately trained or equipped with appropriate personal protective equipment.

We know that OSHA's respiratory protection standard was not enforced at or around Ground Zero. As a consequence, the percentage of workers who should have worn respirators but didn't never surpassed 60% and sometimes was as low as 20%.

We know that of the hundreds of immigrant day laborers engaged in the cleanup of contaminated offices and residences around Ground Zero that NYCOSH and the Queens College Center for the Biology of Natural Systems saw at our mobile medical van, the vast majority have persistent respiratory symptoms.

We know anecdotally that of the 9,000 Ground Zero workers and volunteers seen by the World Trade Center Screening Program, half have symptoms consistent with mental health problems and/or psychosocial dysfunction, three quarters have at least one persistent WTC-related pulmonary symptom, and almost 90% have at least one ear, nose, or throat symptom.

We know that there has been no systematic assessment of the health outcomes of Lower Manhattan residents. We know that there has been no systematic assessment of the health outcomes of Lower Manhattan workers who were not involved in rescue or recovery operations but who may have been exposed to toxic contaminants.

As we assess the strengths and deficiencies of our response to 9/11, even at this late date, there is much that can be done to protect those who may still be at risk and to ensure that we are better prepared to safeguard public health and environmental quality in the event of a future natural or technological disaster.

In the short term, NYCOSH recommends the implementation of a comprehensive, representative, science-based indoor testing program to determine the nature and extent of remaining 9/11 contamination. This should be followed, where warranted, by appropriate abatement and by clearance tests. This program should include all indoor spaces - residential, commercial, and institutional.

The current medical screening program should be expanded in scope and funding to cover all affected workers, volunteers, and residents and to provide appropriate medical surveillance and treatment to those in need who do not otherwise have access to medical care or insurance. Workers compensation claims for 9/11-related injuries or illness should be expedited.

In the long term, it must be recognized that the current regulatory framework has been proven inadequate in catastrophic incidents of this nature and scope. NYCOSH recommends that government agencies at all levels begin now to prepare a coordinated, uniform, comprehensive disaster response plan, elements of which should include:

  • designation of a lead agency to coordinate response; coordination of federal, state and local agencies; clear delineation of the role of each agency; ability of each agency to act quickly and with authority in its areas of expertise
  • pro-active planning to ensure adequate response in all sectors, including workplaces, residences, and indoor and outdoor public spaces
  • a compendium of applicable laws and regulations, including those pertaining to occupational safety and health, environmental protection, and worker and community right-to-know
  • enforcement of applicable laws, standards, and regulations, rather than a policy of voluntary compliance
  • a best practices guidebook based on previous incidents
  • evacuation and re-occupancy criteria, including evaluation and reform of building and fire codes
  • a protocol for uniformity in environmental sampling and analysis, collection of results from both government and independent sources, and centralization and evaluation of results
  • rapid and ongoing hazard analysis utilizing all available data, including but not limited to environmental sampling results, SARA Title III annual reports, toxic release inventory release reports, etc.
  • honest and accurate risk communication and public health education
  • creation of an expanded population of properly trained and equipped first responders
  • a central personnel registry to track workers, volunteers, and exposed or otherwise affected persons
  • a toxic-use-reduction program to minimize on-site storage of toxic and flammable substances.

Thank you for this opportunity to share our views today.


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