Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article|
New York Environmental Law
& Justice Project, October 25, 2001
response to a Freedom of Information request, we obtained EPA's test data on samples of
the air, dust, and water run off taken between September 16 and October 16 from the World
Trade Center area. While we found the data to be incomplete, we have enough information
from this EPA sources, from other studies, and from samples we personally had analyzed to
comment on some of the contaminants and to make recommendations.
ASBESTOS DUST. Dusts containing one percent
or more of asbestos must be treated as asbestos under the EPA and OSHA regulations. EPA's
test of dust in and around ground zero show asbestos levels ranging from a trace to 5
percent. The lack of uniformity in dust samples means that workers exposed to this dust
should always use precautions consistent with asbestos work. Yet the front page of the
October 22 New York Times showed workers on the pile either without respirators or with
them hanging uselessly around their necks.
We believe this is in part due to EPA's press releases which have
stressed that air sampling in New York and New Jersey showed very low levels of asbestos.
EPA did not make it clear that air tests are not relevant to those working at ground zero.
These workers and workers cleaning up dust-contaminated buildings will be exposed to much
higher levels of dust which are created by the work they do.
SULFUR DIOXIDE. The EPA data showed that sulfur
dioxide gas in the air on a number of days in October when people were moving back into
the area were at levels EPA describes in their own Air Quality Indexes as "unhealthy
for sensitive groups" (0.22 parts per million), "unhealthy" (0.3 ppm),
"very unhealthy" (0.6 ppm), or outright "hazardous" (0.8 ppm or
higher). There were many readings in the hazards range including a spectacular 1.8 ppm.
Sulfur dioxide is highly irritating and sensitizing. Under EPA's own
guidelines, levels of sulfur dioxide as high as these trigger public announcements warning
asthamatics and people with heart problems to stay indoors. Yet we did not hear the EPA or
the media warning people working or living in the areas near where these readings were
obtained about this dangerous gas.
Benzene & Organic Chemicals. Toxic organic chemicals including
benzene contribute to the distinctive odor of the smoke. EPA tests of the air at ground
zero and of the smoke plume showed the presence of benzene and about 16 other organic
chemicals. Benzene was found in amounts over the occupational (OSHA) limit of 1 ppm on
Although concentrations of chemicals at a distance from the plume are
expected to be much lower, people should have been told that the odor of the smoke is from
these highly toxic chemicals. The EPA should explain that while the amounts of these toxic
chemicals were usually measured at levels below OSHA standards, these standards are set
for the eight-hour work day. People who work longer than eight hours on the pile or who
live near ground zero are exposed for much longer periods. And those individuals who both
live and work in the area are exposed continuously.
More importantly, the OSHA standards are set to protect healthy adults.
They are not intended for protection of children or people with certain health problems.
The EPA should have provided this information in order to help individuals who live and/or
work in areas where the odors are strong to make informed decisions about the risks to
themselves and their children.
PCBs & DIOXINS. EPA's data on PCBs and dioxins
appear to contain errors or omissions. For example, there were days on which PCBs were not
found in the air and water while, on the same day, very high levels of some PCBs were
found in run-off water from the area. This is not consistent with other studies of
PCB-contaminated sites. We need additional data before commenting.
FIBER GLASS. The EPA did not test for fiberglass
at all. Yet the dust samples we took ranged from 10 to 75 percent fiber glass. These tiny
needle-like particles are probably causing much of the reported irritation of the eyes and
respiratory tract. People who are allergic to formaldehyde are likely to have additional
symptoms because the fibers are usually coated with a thin layer of
formaldehyde-containing resin. In addition, the National Toxicology Program lists
respirable size glass fibers as "reasonably anticipated" to cause cancer.
Clearly, the presence of fiber glass in the dust must be considered
when EPA issues advice.
Workers at ground zero should assume that asbestos is present in the
dust and protect themselves appropriately.
The dust in building and apartments should be analyzed before cleaning
All work in buildings or areas contaminated with dusts containing one
percent or more of asbestos should be done by certified asbestos abatement contractors.
Householders should only attempt to clean up very small amounts of
dusts that are not contaminated with either asbestos or large amounts of fiberglass.
Respirators, including toxic dust masks, should not be recommended for
use by the public unless exposure is expected to be below a level of concern or unless the
individual is medically certified, fit tests, and trained for respirator use.
HEPA vacuum cleaners and/or wet cleaning methods should be used. Even
asbestos-free dusts are expected to contain enough other contaminants to warrant using
All heating and air-conditioning systems in operation during or after
September 11 should be inspected. An environmental consultant determine appropriate
methods for remediation.
All furnishings that can not be cleaned effectively such as
wall-to-wall carpet and upholstered furniture should be removed.
To ensure the dust is completely abated, offices and dwellings should
be test again after they have been occupied for a few days. Serious long term health
effects can be expected if small amounts of asbestos and fiber glass remain in offices and
Our criticism are intended to be constructive. Should another emergency
arise, we hope that rapid and full access to data will be provided without having to file
Freedom of Information requests. Withholding data encourages people to take needless
risks. In the end, the information will be released and the people's trust in official
sources will be compromised.
The EPA, local health officials, and the media apparently think they
are preventing panic by withholding data. Instead, our experience, based on answering over
one hundred inquiries from the public, is that New Yorkers are just as courageous in
dealing with air quality issues as they have been in dealing with the disaster.
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