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Dusting Off Manhattan
By Francesca Lyman, MSNBC Contributor, September 9, 2002
A year since the twin towers collapsed, spewing a million tons of dust and ash over the
city and triggering long-smoldering fires, New Yorkers say theyre finally breathing
cleaner air. Even so, as schools reopen and the city continues testing and cleaning
thousands of apartments for lingering dust, residents are voicing unsettling health
concerns about the fallout from the citys worst environmental disaster.
ON THE MORNING of Sept. 11, just after the first jetliner hit, actress Kim Todd got a call
from a friend who worked in the World Trade Center asking for help evacuating people.
Living just two blocks away, Todd rushed to his aid. But she was caught in thick smoke and
the throngs of people escaping the building, and narrowly missed being hit by a falling
piece of the jetliner. Then the second tower came down, and everyone around me was
dead. And while I was taking a breath and thinking, Im OK dont
move, a passing fireman stopped and, seeing me alive, slapped me across the face and
said, Run! Run for your life!
After intensive therapy and an easing of her survivors guilt, the loyal
resident of lower Manhattan, an acting coach, is beginning to recover psychologically. Now
she worries about her physical ailments. She still suffers from a chronic cough and
headaches, like many of her neighbors who inhaled the dust and fumes of downtown Manhattan
over the course of the past year. But I am happy to be alive, and my doctors have
helped tremendously, even with my bills, Todd says.
Today most New Yorkers, including clean-air advocates, say New Yorks air quality is
back to normal at least normal for New York, says Louise Leavitt of the
American Lung Associations state chapter. But some anxieties remain. Downtown
residents who were promised help in getting rid of lingering ash and dust that made its
way indoors through windows, vents and ducts worry that the testing and cleanup may not be
enough. Fire trucks and cars still turn up with asbestos-tainted dust.
Ongoing Cleanup Efforts
In May, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would
clean up and test the apartments of any downtown residents who wanted it. So far, the
agency has received more than 3,100 requests for for cleaning and 900 for testing only.
The EPA hopes its efforts will allay any lingering health concerns. Were
talking about very low, long-term health risks here, says Bonnie Bellow, an EPA
spokeswoman, but theres no question that some people are more sensitive than
others and that residues of asbestos could be problematic.
Many residents have been mistrustful of health officials because they feel they
didnt warn them enough of potential hazards early on or take necessary steps to
protect them from dust mixed with hazardous materials such as asbestos and heavy metals.
The agency was widely criticized after EPA chief Christie Whitman told New Yorkers that
there was nothing in the air to worry about in the weeks after the attacks.
In June, a poll by an independent health research group found that more than half of lower
Manhattan residents reported some sort of ailment. In an interesting twist,
wrote the Mellman Group, the Manhattanites expressed more concern about air quality
than they did about another terrorist attack. We all have been exposed to a
host of toxic chemicals, says Todd, adding that tests of dust in her apartment
turned up everything from asbestos to mercury to kaolin, a clay that causes skin
Many residents worry about what was in the dust they breathed or still breathe. Jared
Cook, president of a tenants group for one of Battery Park Citys buildings, two
blocks south of Ground Zero, says many tenants wish the EPA would test indoor spaces for
other contaminants besides asbestos, since mercury, lead and other heavy metals, PCBs and
dioxins have turned up in independent tests.
Rather than protest, however, Cook says his group advocates that tenants take advantage of
what the EPA is now offering. We hope that letting EPA send in its certified
contractors to test and clean for asbestos will most likely take care of most other
contaminants as well, says Cook. Nevertheless he finds it unsettling that of the
five or six residents who had themselves tested for exposure to heavy metals, all tested
positive. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., an outspoken critic of the EPAs handling of
the situation, puts it more strongly. One year later, its outrageous that
people are still living in contaminated spaces, says the congressman. People
are still anguishing over the known hazards and possible hazards of what theyre
breathing in their homes.
Other critics say the EPA ought to be protecting workplaces as well. There are
thousands of offices and stores where asbestos-tainted dust fell and where cleanups were
insufficient, says Jonathan Bennett of the New York Committee for Occupational
Safety and Health. It still lingers in boiler rooms, crevices and carpets.
Concerns About Nearby School
Then there are worries over Stuyvesant High School, the center of
a heated controversy since last June, when its ductwork and ventilation system were found
to be contaminated with lead. The school, which sits across from a site where toxic debris
was loaded onto a garbage barge, also served as a triage center for Ground Zero rescue
The New York City Department of Education assured parents that the school was thoroughly
cleaned when it reopened last week, and Parents Association President Judy Moore is
satisfied with the departments standards. Its better that they should
get back to their old school than worry about possible hazards, she says. Any
problematic areas could be sealed off and cleaned while school is in session.
But on opening day, several dozen parents stood outside protesting the schools
handling of the issue. Paul Edwards, parent of a 17-year-old Stuyvesant student,
wasnt planning on sending his son back until the school could answer his lingering
safety questions. He and others worried that vents had not been retested and that
carpeting and upholstery were still contaminated with asbestos. As a result of their
protest, however, Edwards was happy that the department agreed to remove and replace
all carpeting in the building, replace the theatrical curtain in the auditorium and
continue discussions. Despite the concerns, many residents say they wouldnt
want to leave downtown. I just want to get through the anniversary, and find the
fireman that saved my life, says Todd.
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