Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Yearning to breathe in a toxic zone
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 waste site.
    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 complex’s parks and landscaped paths. It was midnight. "I’m wondering to myself, ‘If they’re 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 don’t want the dust stirred up, or they don’t want people to be alarmed to see them? It was all a great mystery — and rather disturbing."      

    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 you’ll 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 it’s 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, she’s much better.

    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 he’s 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 residents’ safety.      

    He’s 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. "There’s 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 there’s been enough testing and monitoring to know if people’s 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."

    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, illness
     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 EPA’s National Priority List of toxic sites to be monitored and cleaned.
    Although there weren’t 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 Libby’s, 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 area’s public health. As it is now, he charges, "the kind of environmental monitoring we’re getting from EPA and other agencies doesn’t adequately measure contaminants."         

    EPA hasn’t formally responded to proposals to re-designate the site. But Joe Martyak, spokesman for EPA in Administrator Christie Whitman’s office, says that already "there’s 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 EPA’s 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 site’s redevelopment." Better, suggests Gerrard, would be "imposing necessary health and safety controls without listing the site this way."
    According to Kupferman, there’s a tension between those who want the property values to stay high — and might object to the area labeled hazardous — and those who don’t have the luxury of moving out to a second home or an apartment on loan. "To some people there’s a stigma attached to these neighborhoods already. These neighborhoods have been declared an environmental disaster area in everything but name."       

    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 wife’s cleaning skills, when we were worried that the apartment wasn’t fit to live in." But the couple wasn’t 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, wasn’t 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 wife’s doctors," Swaney says. "You can’t tell me or people in this neighborhood that there’s 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.         

    An asthmatic and mother of an infant boy, she says, "I don’t need to have an official designation of whether it’s safe or not. If I’m in a place with bad air and I’m coughing all the time, I leave." Some don’t care whether the area is designated a Superfund site or not — just as long as it’s given a clean bill of health. "I just want the buildings properly tested and professionally cleaned according to EPA’s 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 workers."        

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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