Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Critics: $100 million dust-cleaning might not help those most at risk
By Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press Writer, May 14, 2002

    NEW YORK -- The government could spend $100 million or more to clean downtown apartments of dust from the World Trade Center collapse, but critics say the program may come months too late to help those who were at greatest risk. "It would have been far, far better for the EPA to have done this much sooner," said Jonathan Bennett, spokesman for the nonprofit New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. "It would have given people protection from things that are now in their lungs that they can't be protected from now."
    Federal and city environmental officials announced last week that they would spend unlimited funds to professionally clean and test air quality in the apartment of any resident who requests the work. Samples of the dust that settled after the trade center collapse show varying amounts of asbestos, fiberglass and caustic concrete powder.
    Labor advocates said this week that federal and city agencies left workers unnecessarily exposed for months. Hundreds of cleaning workers - many of whom worked with inadequate protective gear - have reported respiratory ailments and other problems after cleaning dust-laden offices and apartments. Those laborers face a slightly elevated risk of asbestos-related cancer in coming decades, scientists said.
    Much cleanup work finished months ago - while government agencies were issuing conflicting and often reassuring assessments of risks posed by the dust.
    The Environmental Protection Agency has not estimated an overall cost for the new cleanup program, spokeswoman Mary Mears said. But industry officials said professional asbestos abatement could cost an average of $4,000 per apartment. The agency also is offering air testing and high-efficiency vacuum cleaners, which together could cost an additional $800 per apartment, on average.
    Census figures show 23,700 occupied housing units below Canal Street, which could drive overall costs as high as $113 million if every resident asked for cleaning, testing and a vacuum cleaner. Mears noted the agency believes far fewer than 23,000 apartment dwellers will request cleanup so the cost will be well below the top estimates. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has pledged unlimited funds to the cleanup effort.
    Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton asked FEMA in a letter Tuesday to expand the cleaning program to include small businesses and a reimbursement program for residents who already have paid cleanup costs out of pocket. Whatever the cost, scientists and EPA officials say the remaining dust poses little health risk.
    For downtown residents, the risk of asbestos-related cancer is not much greater than that for the general population, said Dr. Stephen Levin, medical director of the Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
    EPA officials say the program is designed mainly to reassure jittery residents that their homes are safe. "What the scientists have been telling us is, 'Very low risk, even over a long period of time,"' EPA regional administrator Jane Kenny said. "Really what we're trying to do is to make people in lower Manhattan feel that they're living in a good place and that they're safe in their homes."
    Some critics say that cleaning potentially thousands of apartments that might not contain hazardous dust will draw funds from more deserving programs. "They should establish some procedure for testing first and then making a determination of whether that place requires a specialized cleanup," said Kenneth Green, chief scientist of the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, a market-oriented think tank. "For the sake of dealing with the problem effectively and efficiently you need to have some sort of scientific, risk-based basis for this."
    The agency said last week that there were roughly 15,000 apartments in the affected area below Canal Street. Mears said Tuesday that miscommunication between city and federal agencies led the agency to underestimate the number.


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