Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

EPA Stuck in Haze - Official to counter reports that air at Ground Zero is OK
By Ellen Yan, Newsday Washington Bureau, February 23, 2002

    Washington - The air around Ground Zero is so contaminated that no one should go nearby without an asbestos-filtering respirator, the federal Environmental Protection Agency's ombudsman plans to tell a Manhattan hearing Saturday. The advice contradicts recommendations from EPA chief Christie Whitman, city health officials and other experts, who said only workers at the World Trade Center site require respirators.
    Those officials said some tests shortly after Sept. 11 showed dangerous levels of asbestos and other contaminants but air samples since then have been more reassuring.
    Jane M. Kenny, EPA administrator for the region that includes Manhattan, accused the ombudsman's office of trying to grab headlines, saying the "hearing may be off-off Broadway, but it is still pure theater."
    But Hugh Kaufman, the EPA ombudsman's chief investigator in the case, and national ombudsman Robert Martin plan to present studies showing the air is less safe than the EPA has said and that Whitman "misrepresented" the data.
    They recommend residents, workers and platform visitors wear respirators within a few blocks of Ground Zero. They also charge that several federal agencies broke laws by not following more stringent precautions and not treating material at Ground Zero that contained asbestos, mercury, jet fuel, fiberglass and other dangerous contaminants as hazardous waste.
    "Don't go without a respirator," Kaufman said in an interview as he suggested respirators with asbestos filters. "Do you want to" - Kaufman breathed deeply - "those fine particles in your lungs? ... I think the law mandates respirators."
    Martin and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan) scheduled the hearing to delve into the EPA's handling of air-quality concerns. Members of the public will be allowed to comment at the hearing, set for noon to at least 8 p.m. at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse, 500 Pearl St. Testimony also will come from scientists, doctors and those who blame the air for their ailments.
    Some outside experts dispute whether the air is as toxic as the ombudsman's office says. "This respirator is unnecessary for most people in most situations," said George Thurston, associate professor of environmental medicine at New York University's School of Medicine, who with his colleagues monitored air quality for months. "Maybe in September that would have been appropriate, but not today. The fire is out, and there's just not much asbestos flying outdoors."
    There have been disagreements, even from within EPA, on which type of asbestos test, guidelines and equipment to use and whether they've been done under realistic conditions, especially on indoor air.
    Whitman and the ombudsman's office, which looks into public complaints, have been at odds for some time. In December, she proposed putting Martin's office under the EPA's inspector-general office, a move that Martin said is intended to silence him from pursuing cases that may embarrass her. A federal judge has issued a temporary injunction against the move.
    Kaufman, who worked on the infamous Love Canal case and has been at the agency for 31 years, said the EPA has been untruthful about air quality. "The unprecedented challenge," Kaufman said, "was to lie with a straight face in the face of New Yorkers who don't trust government as much as the people in other parts of the country."
    Mary Helen Cervantes, the EPA's New York City's spokeswoman, questioned the motives of the ombudsman's office. "It sounds like they've reached a conclusion before having the hearing, which raises the question of why they're having the hearing," she said.
    Health and environmental officials weeks ago declared the air in the stricken area safe enough for residents to move back. But the EPA has been under fire for not responding quickly enough to concerns about indoor air. The agency also has been criticized for initially advising residents to clean dust- and debris-laden apartments with a wet mop or wet rag while its local offices were cleaned by an asbestos contractor. The EPA later recommended using professional cleaners.
    Martin said he's still collecting information to determine the extent of air problems, so his office cannot yet figure how far from Ground Zero to draw the respirator zone. He also warned the dangers may even increase: "They may reach more contaminated material the deeper they go in the excavation."
    He and Kaufman believe money is one reason why officials have not been more aggressive. It was only after several New York lawmakers complained that Whitman decided more than a week ago to form a task force to study indoor air. "It would be multi-billions of dollars to do what needs to be done in Manhattan," Martin said.
    Respirators could run about $20 and more, depending on accessories, with full-face respirators costing as much as $170. Some asbestos filter cartridges sell for about $10 a pair. The equipment is sold by companies catering to industrial and personal safety.
    Thurston warned respirators could do more damage than good. The devices must be fitted individually to work, he said, and make it harder to breathe, so it would not be appropriate for asthma sufferers and others. He recommends talking to a doctor before getting one. Low-cost surgical masks would filter out bigger particles, he said.

Measuring The Danger

The tests
The Environmental Protection Agency says that of 6,172 samples collected since Sept. 11, 17 tested higher than the standard set by the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act.

The results
Eleven of the samples were taken before Sept. 30. The remaining six are shown on the map, with asbestos particles per square millimeter (psm).

The standard
Children are allowed to re-enter schools after asbestos removal when tests show 70 psm or less.

Nov. 28  Stuyvesant High School 124.4 psm
Oct. 9  Borough of Manhattan Community College 105 psm
Dec. 27  Albany & Greenwich Streets 204.4 psm
Jan. 14  Pier 6 Bus Sign 72 psm
Feb. 5  Liberty & Trinity Streets 88 psm
Feb. 11  Church & Dey Streets 213.3 psm

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