Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

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 they’re 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 city’s 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, ‘I’m OK — don’t 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 “survivor’s 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 York’s air quality is back to normal — “at least normal for New York,” says Louise Leavitt of the American Lung Association’s 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. “We’re talking about very low, long-term health risks here,” says Bonnie Bellow, an EPA spokeswoman, “but there’s 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 didn’t 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 irritation.

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 City’s 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 EPA’s handling of the situation, puts it more strongly. “One year later, it’s 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 they’re 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 workers.

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 department’s standards. “It’s 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 school’s handling of the issue. Paul Edwards, parent of a 17-year-old Stuyvesant student, wasn’t 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 wouldn’t 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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