Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Lower Manhattan Occupational & Environmental Health Concerns in the Aftermath of the Attack on the WTC
NYCOSH testimony from the New York City Council Joint Meeting of Committees on Health, the Environment, and Lower Manhattan Redevelopment, March 8, 2002

Mr. Chairman, and Members of the Committees:
My name is David Newman. I am an industrial hygienist on the staff of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). NYCOSH is a private, non-profit, union-based health and safety organization located here in Manhattan. We operate throughout the five boroughs of New York City, Nassau and Suffolk, and the lower Hudson Valley. 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 over twenty years.

Since the tragic events of September 11 and continuing to this day, NYCOSH 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 reoccupancy protocols, and technical assistance with building ventilation and filtration issues. NYCOSH serves as an information clearinghouse for area workers, unions, employers, and residents.

For two months, 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 have 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.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the valuable and dedicated efforts of city employees in lower Manhattan since September 11, work of which they, and we, can be proud.

Nevertheless, NYCOSH remains concerned that the response of various agencies of the City of New York, including the Departments of Health (NYCDOH), Environmental Protection (NYCDEP), Buildings, and Design and Construction, and the Office of Emergency Management, to the events of September 11 has not been adequately protective of environmental quality or of public health and has not been consistent with their mission or with prior emergency response operations. As a result, thousands of workers, residents, and students throughout lower Manhattan remain at elevated levels of risk for exposure to contaminants which threaten their health and which threaten the general environment.

1. Early public statements by city officials and agencies appear to ignore or contradict information which was readily available at the time.

For example, on September 12, Mayor Giuliani and City Health Commissioner Neal Cohen told reporters that "air quality is being monitored, but no cause for concern has been detected." Cohen said that several agencies were "looking at air asbestos," but "at this point, we don't have any level of concern." Giuliani said, "The air is safe as far as we can tell." On September 17, NYCDOH issued this statement: "As expected, some asbestos was found in a few of the dust and debris samples taken from the blast site and individuals working in this area have been advised to take precautions. However, most of the air samples taken have been below levels of concern. Based on the asbestos test results received thus far, there are no significant health risks to occupants in the affected area or to the general public."

At the time, it was common public knowledge that extensive quantities of sprayed-on asbestos-containing fireproofing were present in the World Trade Center at the time of its collapse. Significant quantities of asbestos were likely to have been released into the environment by the collapse of the Twin Towers and would continue to be released until the completion of the clearance of the World Trade Center site. By the end of September, US EPA had collected 177 bulk dust samples, of which only 24 percent were free of asbestos. Some 49 percent contained less than 1 percent asbestos and 27 percent contained more than 1 percent asbestos. In another example, information on the probable presence of toxic substances was available under the hazardous chemical storage reporting requirements of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, codified in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations, parts 350 - 372, sections 311 - 312. Examination of such readily available data would have indicated the possible presence of barium, lead, chloroform, chlordane, carbon tetrachloride, cadmium, chromium, mercury, hydrogen sulfide, arsenic, and other toxic substances at the United States Customs Service, 6 World Trade Center, and of mercury, tetrachloroethylene, PCBs, arsenic, ethane, and other toxic substances at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, 1 World Trade Center, and thus the potential for contamination by or exposure to any of these toxic substances.

2. City agencies have downplayed and continue to downplay the extent and significance of threats to public health and to the environment in lower Manhattan.

Unfortunately, this behavior may have influenced government response efforts as well as subsequent behavior by workers, employers, residents, and landlords. The message sent out by the city was that there was no cause for concern. Consequently, in many instances, workers did not receive immediate, unequivocal, and specific instruction about personal protective equipment, including types of respirators and filters appropriate for the contaminants to which they were exposed. Respirator use even today among some Ground Zero workers and among most lower Manhattan cleanup workers remains at unacceptably low and unsafe levels. In many cases landlords and employers have encouraged or forced workers and tenants to return to or remain in offices and residences which have not been adequately tested for contaminants or appropriately cleaned or abated. Recently released studies of environmental quality in lower Manhattan by the University of California at Davis and the U.S. Geological Survey indicate the presence of toxic contaminants which had not been monitored by other agencies. In addition, as some buildings, e.g., 90 Church Street and 30 West Broadway, undergo comprehensive environmental sampling, extensive mercury and dioxin contamination has been found, raising concerns that other buildings being cleaned or reoccupied may also be contaminated with unidentified toxic substances.

It is also important to note that workplaces, residences, and schools along West Street from Ground Zero to North Moore Street continue to be exposed to environmental contaminants from ongoing truck and barge operations at the waste transfer site at Pier 25. Concentrations of respirable particulates (PM2.5) at the barge site have regularly measured twice as high as those adjacent to Ground Zero.

3. The virtually exclusive reliance by city agencies on the results of outdoor environmental sampling to characterize risk serves to underestimate indoor risk levels.

Outdoor air monitoring may accurately measure asbestos at very low concentrations which result from the dispersion and dilution of fibers throughout the atmosphere. However, such measurements may not be reflective of conditions indoors where asbestos fibers infiltrate and do not get dispersed or diluted. Instead they settle out on surfaces, from where they may be repeatedly stirred up and distributed within buildings by human activity and mechanical ventilation systems. Continued infiltration over time of even small amounts of asbestos-containing dust may result in significantly higher indoor concentrations, thus posing exposure hazards indoors that may not be present outdoors. With the exception of exposures at Ground Zero, the heaviest exposures to airborne asbestos are occurring in indoor settings where settled dust and debris from the collapse of the Trade Center are disturbed and made airborne again by workers or residents engaged in cleanup activities.

4. The incidence of exposure to environmental contaminants could have been minimized or prevented if the City had undertaken a coordinated effort to clean up outdoor and indoor spaces and to protect cleaned indoor spaces against re-contamination. City agencies did not provide, and are not providing, appropriate leadership, information, or enforcement with regard to safe and effective cleanup of potentially contaminated indoor spaces in lower Manhattan. As a result, cleanup efforts in lower Manhattan have been haphazard and inadequate.

NYCDOH published "Recommendations for People Re-Occupying Commercial Buildings and Residents Re-Entering Their Homes" on September 17. That document continues to be the City's official guidance. It states that "there are no significant health risks" involved in cleaning workplaces or homes. It states that "you are advised to wear a dust mask upon entering [the area closest to Ground Zero] to decrease the possibility of dust inhalation and throat irritation. Outside [the area closest to Ground Zero], masks are not necessary, but may be worn for your own comfort. If there is dust present indoors, it should not be necessary to wear this mask if you follow the cleaning procedures detailed below."

If the settled dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center is contaminated with asbestos, as OSHA now acknowledges, any exposure does, in fact, pose a health risk. If the dust contains asbestos, a "dust mask" will not provide protection. Since it is virtually impossible to prevent the ultra-fine dust from the collapse from becoming airborne when it is disturbed, only an asbestos abatement can guarantee safe and effective cleanup of asbestos and other particulate contaminants.

5. City agencies have declined to enforce applicable existing laws that protect public health and the environment.

Perhaps most significantly, NYCDEP has failed to enforce the New York City Asbestos Abatement and Control Rules and Regulations, the purpose of which is to protect workers and the public from harmful exposure to asbestos.

The law establishes reporting requirements for removal of asbestos-containing material from indoor surfaces, as well as specific procedures for abatement, post-abatement clearance air testing, and worker protection. US OSHA stated in January that "in that the materials containing asbestos were used in the construction of the Twin Towers, the settled dust from their collapse must be presumed to contain asbestos. Therefore [testing of the dust] is not necessary..." [For the complete text of OSHA's January statement that settled World Trade Center dust contains asbestos, click here.]

Although such asbestos-containing dust has been cleaned or disturbed in thousands of lower Manhattan workplaces and residences, NYCDEP Chief of Staff Charles. G. Sturckin has informed NYCOSH that his agency has recorded only 35 asbestos abatements in lower Manhattan since September 11. As a result, untold numbers of residents and cleanup workers have been allowed to engage in unrecorded, unsupervised, illegal, and unprotected and dangerous activities. Furthermore, these misguided efforts are likely to have been ineffective in achieving their goal of removing asbestos fibers from indoor spaces.

6. 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.

In 1989, an underground steam pipe explosion in the Gramercy Park area of Manhattan killed 3 people, injured 24, and released approximately 200 pounds of asbestos into the general environment. The asbestos, part of a muddy mixture of water and earth, was sprayed onto every outdoor surface and many indoor surfaces in an area somewhat larger than 1 square block. This asbestos-contaminated mud had an asbestos content roughly identical to that of Trade Center dust in lower Manhattan today, ranging from trace level to five percent.

As soon the presence of asbestos in Gramercy Park was confirmed, NYCDOH declared a public health emergency, ordered the evacuation of more than two hundred residents, and sealed off the contaminated area. NYCDEP, in collaboration with NYCDOH and US EPA, initiated complete asbestos abatement operations in all contaminated buildings and in all contaminated outdoor areas. In some buildings, the decontamination took months, during which time the residents lived elsewhere, at the expense of Con Edison. In the 12 years that have passed since then, no one has suggested that the City's response to asbestos contamination in Gramercy Park was not appropriate. Yet, despite significantly higher levels of fatalities, injuries, evacuations, and toxic releases in lower Manhattan, city agencies undertook no comparable actions subsequent to the events of September 11.

7. Even at this late date, there is much we can do to prevent further harm to those who may still be at risk. Effective measures can be taken, and must be taken immediately, to ensure adequate cleanup, to protect the indoor environment on an ongoing basis, and to minimize additional releases of contaminants.

NYCOSH has recommended since shortly after September 11 that city agencies establish binding protocols for evaluation, cleanup, clearance testing, and reoccupancy of contaminated or potentially-contaminated workplaces and residences in lower Manhattan. We recommend that the appropriate government agency or agencies require:

  • asbestos abatements be conducted in premises contaminated with visibly elevated levels of dust, as per the OSHA letter of January 31, 2002, which states "in that ... materials containing asbestos were used in the construction of the Twin Towers, the settled dust from their collapse must be presumed to contain asbestos"
  • abatements meet all requirements of the New York City Asbestos Abatement and Control Rules and Regulations, including reporting, worker protection, and aggressive clearance testing
  • explicit criteria for reoccupancy of buildings or areas.

Additional information on these recommendations can be found on our website,

8.  As we assess the strengths and deficiencies of our response to 9/11, city agencies must begin now to prepare a coordinated, uniform, comprehensive disaster response plan to better protect public health and environmental quality in the face of future catastrophic incidents.

NYCOSH also recommends the establishment of a uniform disaster response plan, elements of which should include, in addition to those listed above:

  • designation of a lead agency to coordinate response and to ensure compliance with applicable regulations
  • 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
  • creation of a compendium of applicable laws and regulations, including those pertaining to occupational safety and health, environmental protection, and worker and community right-to-know
  • development of a best practices guidebook based on previous incidents
  • establishment of protocols for:
    • emergency evacuation of impacted buildings and areas
    • environmental sampling and analysis, including collection, centralization, and dissemination of results
    • assessment of building ventilation and filtration capabilities
    • immediate and ongoing hazard analysis utilizing all available data, including but not limited to, results of environmental sampling, SARA Title III annual reports, toxic release inventory release reports, etc.
    • accumulation, storage, and emergency distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE), including respirators
    • on-site, emergency, short duration respirator training and fit-testing, followed as soon as possible by full training
    • ongoing communication between response agencies and affected parties
    • a central personnel registry to track workers, volunteers, and exposed or otherwise affected persons
    • coordination and funding of immediate and long-term medical response and surveillance by government agencies and medical institutions.

It is essential that we learn from the tragic events of September 11. It is now 6 months since the attack on the Trade Center. Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do to bring back those we have lost. However, as more information becomes available and as we assess the strengths and deficiencies of our response, there is much we can do to prevent further harm to those who may still be at risk. And, should the unthinkable reoccur, we must be better prepared to protect public health and environmental quality.

Thank you for this opportunity to make our views known.

This article contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my efforts to advance understanding of democracy, economic, environmental, human rights, political, scientific, and social justice issues, among others. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material in this article is distributed without profit for research and educational purposes.

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