Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article|
Yearning to breathe in a
January 11, 2002
Four months ago, Sept.
11 marked the tragic loss of thousands of lives in an unprecedented terrorist attack on
U.S. soil. The event may also be the biggest environmental disaster to ever hit New York
City or any densely populated area in America, for that matter. Now, some experts
are calling for Ground Zero and surrounding neighborhoods to be designated a federal toxic
STEVE SWANEY and his wife looked up to the World Trade Center towers
from their apartment balcony in Battery Park City, the development complex skirting the
Hudson River once advertised as "an oasis of green calm just minutes away from the
financial capital of the world." Today, half of its
occupants have moved out, and its sprawling playgrounds no longer teem with children.
Recently, Swaney watched workers in full "Haz-Mat" suits,
attached by hose to waste trucks, vacuuming dust, asbestos-contaminated debris and other
toxins from the complexs parks and landscaped paths. It was midnight. "Im
wondering to myself, If theyre all suited up, why is it safe for us to move
back in?" Swaney says. "Why are they here so late at night is it
that they dont want the dust stirred up, or they dont want people to be
alarmed to see them? It was all a great mystery and rather
FOUR MONTHS LATER
Today, gone are the smoldering fires where the Twin
Towers once stood, as well as most of the burning smells, except at the site of the crater
itself. Four months after the trade-center attacks, thousands of people line up to get
free tickets to ensure a place on a short viewing platform to peer into the crater of
Ground Zero, a place that still haunts New Yorkers.
But look beyond the crater to the hundreds of apartments and
offices in the surrounding neighborhoods of the Financial District, Battery Park City,
Tribeca and Chinatown, and youll find people still worried whether their homes and
workplaces have been adequately cleaned up from the thousands of tons of dust thrown off
by the buildings collapse and wondering if its safe to stay.
Although health and environmental officials continue to declare
the area around Ground Zero safe to live and work in, Swaney and other residents are
dubious. Two days after leaving the area, his wife was found to have 40 percent lung
function, and since leaving the area, shes much better.
LUNG AILMENTS RISING
A number of New York physicians also worry about a surge
in new respiratory ailments and worsened asthma cases among lower Manhattan residents. In
response to concern from parents, schools and neighborhood boards, several universities
have launched new medical studies to monitor their health. "More people are showing
up with respiratory ailments coughing and tightness of the chest, wheezing,"
says Neil Schachter, a pulmonary specialist at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York. He
says hes seen a 10 percent increase in respiratory ills in his practice
asthma in previously healthy people as well as cases of worsening disease. "People
are disabled, home sick with racking coughs," he says.
Swaney now feels the city vastly downplayed the hazards of dust
and air pollution and that its standards for cleanup of dust may be inadequate to ensure
Hes not alone in his concerns. A growing number of
residents, elected officials and health experts now feel that some mechanism needs to be
set up to ensure public health safety at Ground Zero and affected downtown neighborhoods.
"Theres certainly a high level of emotional discomfort and anxiety expressed by
our constituents," says Dan Weiller, spokesman for New York State Assembly Speaker
Sheldon Silver, whose district encompasses the lower East Side, Chinatown and Battery Park
City. "A lot of people wonder whether theres been enough testing and monitoring
to know if peoples health is being protected."
To that end, Environmental Protection Agency ombudsman Robert J.
Martin on Thursday asked the agency to hand over documents on how well it informed the
public about testing it had done for hazardous materials, such as asbestos and benzene,
The Washington Post reported. The agency also asked officials to show whether "the
kind of asbestos testing they did was flawed because it did not pick up finely pulverized
asbestos dust that seeped into nearby offices and apartment buildings."
A SUPERFUND CALL
Cate Jenkins, a chemist at the EPA in the office of solid
waste, agrees that the agencies may have ignored some potent health hazards. "I think
people really are at risk here, because unless there is thorough and effective cleanup,
people are at risk of breathing asbestos fibers, and once they get in their lungs, they
never go away."
A neighborhood haunted by stress,
Interviews in late October with more than 400 people
living near the World Trade Center site found that many continue to suffer from stress and
other disorders. Nearly 40 percent have had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,
including emotional numbness, depression, anxiety, feelings of intense guilt, irritability
or outbursts of intense anger and sleep loss, since the Sept. 11 attack. About half suffer
physical ailments, such as nose, throat and eye irritation. The ailments, most likely
short-term effects that are expected to dissipate, were linked to the fires that burned
for weeks at the site. One in three felt they could benefit from additional counseling.
Because microscopic asbestos fibers are so small, they can hang in the
air and, when inhaled, penetrate and irritate the lung, she says. And studies have shown
that breathing in airborne asbestos fibers can lead to a variety of ills
mesothelioma, or cancer of the lining of the lung, lung cancer and asbestosis, a
thickening and scarring of the lungs.
Jenkins compared dust samples drawn from New York apartments in an
independent study done by the Ground Zero Task Force with similar samples drawn from
houses in Libby, Mont., a small town designated last December as a Superfund site after a
surrounding vermiculite mine released deadly asbestos fibers into the air, allegedly
killing hundreds. As a Superfund site, Libby was automatically added to the EPAs
National Priority List of toxic sites to be monitored and cleaned.
Although there werent many samples, says Jenkins, these results
suggest that lower Manhattan could be eligible for listing as a Superfund site, the
criterion being that its contamination, like Libbys, poses "an imminent and
substantial endangerment to public health."
Paul Bartlett, an environmental scientist with the Center for the
Biology of Natural Systems, agrees that some sort of "emergency designation" for
the whole area could help ensure health and safety, and perhaps institute an effective
health-tracking system to follow the areas public health. As it is now, he charges,
"the kind of environmental monitoring were getting from EPA and other agencies
doesnt adequately measure contaminants."
NO FORMAL RESPONSE
EPA hasnt formally responded to proposals to
re-designate the site. But Joe Martyak, spokesman for EPA in Administrator Christie
Whitmans office, says that already "theres an enormous amount of money
provided by the Presidential disaster declaration." As to whether that money could be
used to help in cleanup of homes and offices, however, Martyak notes, "indoor air is
beyond EPAs jurisdiction."
Opposed to the idea is Michael Gerrard, an environmental lawyer for
Arnold and Porter, a law firm that represents real estate clients, among others. "It
would be a bad idea to list Ground Zero as a Superfund site," he says. "It would
subject the site to a much longer and more drawn-out bureaucratic process of deciding how
best to clean it up, and it would significantly impede the sites
redevelopment." Better, suggests Gerrard, would be "imposing necessary health
and safety controls without listing the site this way."
According to Kupferman, theres a tension between those who want
the property values to stay high and might object to the area labeled hazardous
and those who dont have the luxury of moving out to a second home or an
apartment on loan. "To some people theres a stigma attached to these
neighborhoods already. These neighborhoods have been declared an environmental disaster
area in everything but name."
TENANTS STILL CONCERNED
Back in Lower Manhattan, Swaney, a former president of his
tenants association, believes many tenants are concerned and says at least half have
moved temporarily for health reasons. He recalls that when his wife, Marisa Ramirez de
Arellano, fled their building, to be evacuated with others by boat to Jersey City on Sept.
11, she left the patio doors open. As a result, the apartment became covered in dust from
the falling debris.
To make sure that the building had undergone a thorough cleaning by the
landlords, the Swaneys waited several weeks before returning. But they were shocked upon
their return to find visible piles of dust. Ramirez de Arellano could barely breathe upon
entering. Swaney went down to the building superintendent to ask about it: "The super
told us, My wife did the cleaning. He was insulted that I was impugning his
wifes cleaning skills, when we were worried that the apartment wasnt fit to
live in." But the couple wasnt angry with the supers, who thought they
were doing the right thing, even putting their own health in jeopardy, cleaning the
building with dustpan and broom.
Environmental authorities should have overseen the operation, Swaney
says. And a second cleaning done a month later, by immigrant workers with no training or
special equipment like vacuum cleaners or respirators, wasnt much better. So the
Swaneys followed with a third cleaning of their own, using a HEPA vacuum cleaner, with
special dust and allergen filters, suggested by the city health department. Even then, the
couple ended up moving out, "on very clear, strong orders of my wifes
doctors," Swaney says. "You cant tell me or people in this neighborhood
that theres nothing in the air." "Anybody with a kid still living down
here is nuts," he says. His wife adds that so few children are left in the complex
that the day care center is on the verge of closing.
Diane Miller, who up until recently lived in a co-op apartment two
blocks away from the disaster site, is another New Yorker who is delaying returning to her
home in the financial district. She considers herself one of the fortunate, having friends
who could loan her places to stay while the dust settled.
A LUCKY ONE
An asthmatic and mother of an infant boy, she says, "I
dont need to have an official designation of whether its safe or not. If
Im in a place with bad air and Im coughing all the time, I leave." Some
dont care whether the area is designated a Superfund site or not just as long
as its given a clean bill of health. "I just want the buildings properly tested
and professionally cleaned according to EPAs own guidelines," says Swaney.
"We have tests showing asbestos was present in the dust in quantities over 1 percent
the level at which EPA requires cleaning be done only by contractors certified to
remove hazardous waste. Right now, this is not being enforced."
If the state of New York considered listing Lower Manhattan as a
Superfund site, there might be understandable reluctance from financial interests, says
Sgt. David Duffy of the New York Police Department. "With the whole idea of bringing
business back to lower Manhattan, they might not want to have it tainted that
way." At the same time, he adds, "the city has an obligation to the tens of
thousands of emergency workers and hundreds of thousands of people who live and work
downtown. Financial obligation to the city is one thing. But the higher obligation is
moral and ethical."
Duffy, who has been involved in the rescue effort since the beginning,
says that so much time was spent searching for any survivors and combing through debris
for remains of the dead, that less thought was given to the living. Now people are shocked
to hear that some police officers have excess mercury in their blood, possibly as a result
of toxic exposures, and hundreds of firemen have respiratory ailments. "New York won
the propaganda war in showing a brave face," says Duffy, "but it lost the war in
terms of seeing to the needs of the public and the
Francesca Lyman is an environmental and
travel journalist, and editor of the American Museum of Natural History book, "Inside
the Dzanga-Sangha Rain Forest" (Workman, 1998).
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