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Fire Dept. Not Coming Clean on Asbestos Risk?
By Robert Gavin, Advance Staff Writer, August 27, 2002

    The Staten Island fire company hit hardest on Sept. 11 may be riding a contaminated truck. Contrary to Fire Department findings, asbestos was detected in the Rescue Co. 5 truck in testing done after Sept. 11, a report obtained by the Advance has revealed.
    The front and rear cabins of the specialized rig -- which returned from the World Trade Center without the 11 firefighters who rode it to Manhattan immediately after the terrorist attacks -- carried asbestos in a compartment near an air-conditioner pipe, and in a right-seat radio section, according to a March 7 study by the LEW Corporation, an environmental company based in Livingston, N.J.
    Traces of asbestos, a known carcinogen, were also found in a tools compartment on the rig, the report said. "Samples were collected of presumed asbestos dust observed at the site," the findings, released later in March, stated. "The bulk samples were collected in various locations observed throughout the truck."
    The report contradicts FDNY statements from March, when a department spokesman said only four of the nearly 200 trucks which responded to Ground Zero on Sept. 11 had been contaminated with asbestos. The spokesman also said none of those rigs were from Staten Island. The four trucks that did test positive for asbestos had been decontaminated, the spokesman added.
    Word of the Rescue 5 contamination follows the release of tests commissioned by the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project at the request of the Uniformed Firefighters Association (UFA), the city firefighters' union, which found asbestos in excess of federal safety standards in five other trucks.
    Compounding the confusion over how many vehicles were actually contaminated, fire officials released a document yesterday stating that six FDNY vehicles that responded to the World Trade Center exceeded federal airborne asbestos levels. All were decontaminated, the document said.
    Rescue 5 was among the 11 fire units from Staten Island that rushed to Ground Zero on Sept. 11. Several cars from the Island's 21st Battalion and Division 8 were also at the Trade Center. "There's a credibility problem with the department. First they said there's four rigs [contaminated], now we're hearing there is a whole bunch of them," said Phil McArdle, a UFA health and safety officer. "We obviously want the thing cleaned up."
    Firefighters are torn between "doing their jobs and long-term health effects this is going to have," said McArdle. The LEW Corporation, which calls itself "the Environmental Company," made no immediate comment when contacted yesterday. The corporation found materials in Rescue 5's right-seat radio compartment, located in the rig's front cabin, to be 3.8 percent asbestos. Asbestos levels were 1.4 percent in the air-conditioner compartment, which is in a back cabin. And it was .73 percent in the truck's tools compartment, according to the report.
    Federal guidelines consider anything above 1 percent to be asbestos-containing, noted Carrie Loewenherz, an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a not-for-profit organization. The FDNY document said many of the trucks at the Trade Center were found with "caked debris." While such vehicles could test positive for asbestos in a wipe test, such a finding does not spell peril, it said. "The fact that asbestos is present does not constitute an immediate health hazard," the department document said. "Asbestos is only a hazard when it becomes friable and airborne."
    Even material at 6 percent asbestos is not a health hazard if in caked form, the document said. Still, Ms. Loewenherz noted, caked asbestos is hardly "behind a wall." And she said no one should be working in asbestos-contaminated vehicles, regardless of the contamination level. "Even [asbestos] below 1 percent is nothing to sneeze at. Just because it's below 1 percent doesn't mean you're not going to have exposure to it," she said, citing the LEW report obtained by the Advance.
    "It's just more evidence that if it was cleaned, it wasn't cleaned properly. It's just more evidence that they haven't been using proper cleanup and abatement techniques. People have been downplaying the possibility of vehicles being contaminated," Ms. Loewenherz said.
    Rescue 5 suffered the worst casualties of any Island firehouse on Sept. 11 and was among the hardest hit citywide. Among the other Island vehicles at the disaster scene were Engine Cos. 152, 155, 156, 160, 161, 164 and 165, and Ladder Cos. 78, 79 and 84. One Fire Department source expressed concern about firefighters using the Rescue 5 rig until it's replaced, saying, "Until then, it's going to be contaminated."

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