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Toxic Fallout
Online NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Transcript, April 16, 2002

Ray Suarez reports from lower Manhattan on environmental concerns provoked by the collapse of the World Trade Center.

RAY SUAREZ: Mary Perillo and Pat Moore are neighbors in an apartment building just 300 feet from where the Trade Center Towers once stood. Perillo and Moore had to buy moon suits and respirators just to enter their apartment building, and six months after 9/11, their apartments are still covered in a thick layer of gritty dust.

WOMAN: As you can see, the dust has gotten into every nook and cranny, nothing was spared.

RAY SUAREZ: The women want to know what's in that dust, and if and when it will be safe enough to move back into their homes, where they've lived more than 20 years.

PAT MOORE: If you look out of my windows you'll see 16 acres of what was the World Trade Center complex. And look how much work has been done out there. And you look 300 feet away across the street into our little building that we've lived in for almost 25 years, and nothing's been done. It looks exactly the way it looked six months ago.

RAY SUAREZ: An estimated 20,000 people lived in the neighborhood within half a mile of the World Trade Center before the terrorist attack. When the Towers collapsed, they brought down with them materials like asbestos, fibrous glass, and other potential cancer- causing toxins. The toxic materials in tens of thousands of fluorescent light bulbs and computer screens covered lower Manhattan in a cloud. From the outset, local residents have wanted to know how dangerous their neighborhood really is, and who's responsible for cleaning it up. Just two days after the attacks, EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman reassured New Yorkers about the air.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Well, if there's any good news out of all this it's that everything we've tested for, which includes asbestos, lead, and VOC's, have been below any level of concern for the general public health.

RAY SUAREZ: Whitman's agency monitored air quality throughout the New York area, and the EPA cleaned the streets and public buildings of lower equipped trucks that remove Manhattan with specially equipped trucks that remove hazardous materials. The declaration that this was a disaster area triggered a federal response plan. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, became the lead agency, divvying up responsibility for lower Manhattan.
Environmental tasks were split into three: The EPA focused on outdoor air, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, was in charge at ground zero, and the New York City departments of health and environmental protection were charge of indoor air in office buildings, homes, and public places. Congressman Jerrold Nadler's district includes the World Trade Center site and surrounding neighborhoods. He says putting outdoor and indoor air in different categories made no sense.

REP. JERROLD NADLER: Outdoor air becomes indoor air not only the minute you open a window, the minute that the force of that cloud broke open the windows, which they did in many places, and when that cloud, or dust from that cloud got into ventilation shafts and air conditioning inlets. What we need now is a systematic use of EPA people and people contracted by EPA to go into every apartment, every small business that hasn't been inspected, and test systematically thousands and thousands of apartments and workplaces and remediate where necessary.
RAY SUAREZ: But the EPA's Whitman says her agency did the best it could -- given the plan it had to work with.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: We don't regulate indoor air. But there were a number of businesses that came to us and said, you know, "Is it safe to go back in?" Or they wanted to go in and get things. We provided them with the suits, the protective gear to wear, for them to go into the buildings. We were there with them, or they would tell us what they wanted, and where, and we would go in and get things for them. And then subsequent to that, they were advised... again, the city as being the primary responder here was the one that worked with people more directly than we did as far as the indoor, but we did all the outdoor air sampling.

RAY SUAREZ: Many residents found the whole business confusing and frustrating.

MARY PERILLO: And what there was, was systematic run around; not quite disinformation, but the lack of information. "Call the EPA," And they'd say, "call the DEP, call the DEP" And they'd say, "call the Department of Health," they'd say, "call the EPA." Six months I did that circle with these guys. And they left us in a situation to fend for ourselves in a dangerous situations, dressed like amateur tier 2 OSHA workers, doing stuff that really civilians should not be doing.

RAY SUAREZ: Five months after the attacks, New York City's Department of Health and the federal government's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, released preliminary results of one of the few tests inside buildings in lower Manhattan. There is no level of regular asbestos exposure considered "safe," but in samples, ATSDR found asbestos contamination -- at low levels -- in more than 16% of indoor spaces, and more than 40% of outdoor spaces. At the same time, over 40% of homes and over 60% of outdoor spaces contained fibrous glass, widely considered to be cancer- causing when broken into small, inhalable fibers.

And in March, twin task forces, formed by the EPA and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, came up with a plan for the city's Department of Environmental Protection to remove debris from rooftops and facades with EPA's guidance. But the obligation to clean up inside buildings in lower Manhattan was left in the hands of landlords, and a majority of New Yorkers are renters. Some tenants decided to do their own private testing, including bond analyst Sharon McGarvey and her investment manager husband Paul Martin who live in nearby Battery Park City with their two children. When we visited with them last September, they were in temporary quarters, and McGarvey wasn't sure her old neighborhood was a safe place to breathe.

SHARON McGARVEY: (September 2001) I'm just really scared. I mean, it's a serious health hazard. I need to know that it's safe, it's safe for my kids to be there; that ten years from now, they're not going to have cancer because of this. That's what I need to know.

RAY SUAREZ: When we met them again, the couple said the government never provided the information they needed to make an informed decision about their future.

SHARON McGARVEY: By withholding information, they decided how much risk we would take -- not us. And that was clearly wrong.

PAUL MARTIN: It should have been us... up to us to figure out the scenarios, right? Give us the data. We're all intelligent people; let us decide how we want to react to that. But the fact was, there was no data and we were forced to come up with it on our own.

RAY SUAREZ: Their own tests, done in March, showed low levels of asbestos, so McGarvey, Martin and their two children have decided to move further uptown. Jane Kenny, the EPA Administrator for region two, which includes New York City, concedes that there has been some confusion.

JANE KENNY: I think the confusion is so justifiable, and I think people want answers, and we always want answers from science. But I'd like to use the example of just medical... the medical profession, if we've had an ailing relative or had been sick ourselves, and sometimes people say, "Go get another opinion." And you might get a totally contradictory opinion from a second or third doctor. And then you have to use your own judgment.

RAY SUAREZ: The EPA ombudsman, Robert Martin, and Hugh Kaufman, his chief investigator, have held two hearings so  far at Congressman Nadler's request. The ombudsman's office ensures that the EPA is doing its job, and works to resolve disputes. They heard criticism from residents...

RESIDENT: The general issue is the discrepancy between the official and unofficial accounts, or a phase of assessments of the air and dust quality down there, they kept telling us that everything was fine. But also, there are other unofficial levels that have indicated that they are clearly very different than that.

RAY SUAREZ: ...And charged that their own agency did not tell the truth.

SPOKESMAN: The administrator of the EPA's statement to the public after the World Trade Center catastrophe was a lie.

RAY SUAREZ: Hugh Kaufman says local and federal mishandling of contamination from the terrorist attacks will bring a second set of victims.

HUGH KAUFMAN, Chief Investigator for EPA Ombudsman: The first set of victims are the people who were killed when the attack happened. The second set of victims are the people who are exposed to the chemicals: To lead, to mercury, to cadmium, dioxin, benzene, asbestos, all these chemicals that have spread throughout lower Manhattan and have landed in their apartments, in their schools, in the office buildings -- and these Americans who are also suffering from the attack have been abandoned by the government. And that's not right. It's our job at EPA not to count the dead bodies ten or twenty years down the line, not to operate on people to get rid of cancer. It's our job to prevent cancer. And we fell down on the job.

RAY SUAREZ: EPA Administrator Whitman insists that 9/11 presented many new challenges, which will be met before people suffer any harm.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: If there is an area where there is a "hole," this is where it is, in response, because it's just a little murky here as to who has the responsibility, who is responsible for the cleanup. We need to ask for more legislative authority, a change in the statute from Congress perhaps, to give us clear responsibility -- or FEMA, or whomever they want it to go to.

The problem you have in things like asbestos and fine particulate matter is the length of the exposure. It's not so much one hit; it's if you live with it over time. And I believe that with the kind of effort that's being undertaken now to cleanup the window sills, to clean the roofs, to find the money from FEMA if we can do it, or however we find the dollars to help with the indoor cleanup, that that will take away a lot of that concern because while you may feel uncomfortable for a bit -- short-term breathing -- it's the long-term health impact that we're really concerned about. If we get at it soon, as we are now, that should alleviate much of that concern.

RAY SUAREZ: But isn't there a long-term presence if there's not a coordinated...

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: If they don't do a right cleanup.

RAY SUAREZ:...Thorough, professional abatement?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: If they don't do a right cleanup, yes.

RAY SUAREZ: It's not yet clear that the indoor cleanup attempts will be coordinated so that already clean areas don't become recontaminated. But city contractors will begin the decontamination of outdoor roofs and facades within weeks.

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