Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

A Red Flag on Air Tests at WTC
By Juan Gonzalez, Daily News, March 21, 2002

In the days after Sept. 11, EPA officials used standards to determine dangerous asbestos contamination that were never intended to measure health risks, according to a new 43-page memo by a dissident Environmental Protection Agency scientist.

Cate Jenkins, a 22-year veteran with the agency's Hazardous Waste Identification Division in Washington, charged that the agency "misrepresented safety levels and standards for asbestos" and failed to accurately detect possible health risks to the public.

Jenkins first criticized her agency's handling of the World Trade Center disaster in late November, arguing that EPA officials effectively "waived" federal asbestos guidelines by endorsing lenient cleanup methods.

Her latest memo raises new allegations that the standards the EPA publicized as benchmarks for judging asbestos contamination in both dust and air were intended only to measure the presence of asbestos in building materials.

An EPA spokeswoman roundly rejected Jenkins' charges yesterday and defended the agency's work. "We have a number of scientists in the agency who looked at Cate's approach and none of them agree with her view," said spokeswoman Mary Mears.

In the days after Sept. 11, federal officials repeatedly referred to two "standards," one for asbestos in dust and debris and another for asbestos fibers in air.

For dust and debris, the agency standard was 1% asbestos content. For air, it was usually 70 asbestos fibers per square millimeter of a testing filter.

The "EPA has performed 62 dust sample analyses for the presence of asbestos and other substances. Most dust samples fall below EPA's definition of asbestos- containing material [1% asbestos]," EPA Administrator Christie Whitman announced Sept. 18.

Whitman was correct about one thing. Most dust samples were below the 1% standard, but a significant portion were not. Around 35% of those taken in the first few days were above 1%.

But as Jenkins explains in her memo, federal regulations never meant the 1% figure to be considered a health standard or even to be applied to measure dust.

The standard was developed as a way to gauge whether any building material such as floor tiles or pipe insulation contained asbestos and should be considered hazardous waste requiring professional abatement.

But any dust released by the breakup of such materials must be considered hazardous, Jenkins claims, because it came from asbestos-containing products in the Trade Center.

"She's absolutely correct, this is not a health-based standard," said Joel Shufro, an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. [Note by NYCOSH: The report's identification of Joel Shufro is mistaken. He is the Executive Director of NYCOSH, not an industrial hygienist.]

"People exposed to 1% or less can have significant exposure with adverse health impacts," he said.

"We have never said it was a health standard," said the EPA's Mears about the 1%. "We're only using it as a guideline. We say clean up the dust and get rid of the dust regardless of whether it's 1% or below 1% — it doesn't matter."

According to Mears, the agency sent its vacuum trucks to clean all dust off area streets. "It's real easy to be a Monday morning quarterback," Mears said.

One Supporter

One person Jenkins has convinced is Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan). "A lot of New Yorkers have been exposed to very bad health risks, possibly even deaths years from now because EPA put out these standards as if they had anything to do with health risks," Nadler said.

Jenkins also charges the EPA misused the 70-fiber federal test. It is meant to clear public schools for reentry after an asbestos cleanup, but it was applied to outdoor air tests collected under very different test conditions.

"We didn't have a standard in air for a collapse of this type," Mears said. "The 70 fibers is a conservative estimate our risk assessors used."


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