Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

A Toxic Legacy Lingers as Cleanup Efforts Fall Short
By Maggie Farley, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer, September 4, 2002

    NEW YORK -- Almost a year after the World Trade Center's collapse shrouded New York in inches of ash and debris, residents are still finding dust containing surprisingly high levels of asbestos, lead and mercury in their homes, offices and schools. A toxic cocktail containing many times the legal maximum levels of cancer-causing agents lingers everywhere. It is embedded in school carpets, settled in office air vents and stuck in the crevices of firetrucks—even after extensive cleanups.
    Under pressure from activists, local politicians and even its own scientists, the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to clean every residence in Lower Manhattan, although top officials continue to insist that health risks are small. The unprecedented cleanup is a grand gesture that still falls short, say such critics as Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who accuses the EPA of downplaying the risk in the early days after the attacks to avoid a costly and politically unwelcome abatement. The planned cleanup won't include small businesses, firehouses or the residences of hundreds of thousands of people in Brooklyn who were directly in the path of the toxic plume. It covers only the random apartment dwellers who specifically request it, leaving them open to recontamination by units that have not been cleaned or common areas that share a ventilation system.
"It's a major health catastrophe," Nadler said. "We're allowing it to happen, and it's immoral because people are going to die from this."
    Beginning this month, each of the 30,000 residences below Canal Street is eligible to have a team wipe down every surface in the home, wet-vacuum the rugs and upholstery and check the vent outlets for asbestos. So far, 3,205 people have applied for a full cleanup and 905 for testing only. The abatement could cost up to $7,000 per apartment, according to the EPA. "We know that the dust from the World Trade Center can contain asbestos and silica and fibrous materials," said EPA spokeswoman Mary Mears. "Science says that you need fairly high levels and long-term exposure, but we still think there's a potential risk there. But we feel that what we're going to find here is very low levels, and that there would be a very low risk, even if we did nothing."
    Nina Lavin, a jeweler, is one of those convinced she's living in a poisoned building and is angry that the EPA didn't do more to warn people of the hazards. Her apartment, seven blocks north of the World Trade Center site, faced the towers, and her belongings were coated with dust after the buildings fell. Reassured by EPA chief Christie Whitman's claims two days after the disaster that "there appears to be no significant levels of asbestos in the air in New York City," Lavin followed the New York Department of Health's recommendations to clean up with a mere wet mop and rags. Trusting the agency, she said, turned out to be a mistake.

Relocation Plea Rejected

    Months later, Lavin couldn't stop coughing and developed chronic bronchitis, she said. The building manager refused to pay for a professional cleanup. The Federal Emergency Management Agency turned down her request to be relocated, insisting that her building was "structurally sound." Certain that there was still something wrong, she paid to have her apartment tested, and she found that it contained 12 times the maximum legal level of asbestos.
    Lavin is now living in a hotel until her apartment is thoroughly cleaned. But even then, she risks recontamination from other tenants who share the air system in the 460-unit building but who haven't signed up for the scrub-down. "It's really distressing to learn that I've been living with these contamination levels for all these months," Lavin said. "I have no idea what the long-term prognosis is for me or for all of us."
    Scientists aren't sure either. Experts differ on what the long-term health effects might be, because no one has ever studied such a broad combination of contaminants dispersed on such a wide scale before. The immediate effects are clear. The characteristic "World Trade Center cough"—which Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has documented in hundreds of rescue and construction workers—is caused by corrosive concrete dust, ground glass and other lung irritants.
    But Landrigan is also worried about effects that will only show up years later. Asbestos has microscopic, needle-like fibers that can lodge in the lungs and cause scarring and eventually tumors. It is hazardous only when inhaled, Landrigan said, but lingering dust can be circulated by a contaminated air system, stirred up by moving furniture, or raised by children running through the house. "We try to be cautiously reassuring," Landrigan said. "It's fair to say that if someone has been exposed to asbestos indoors for a year, that they have an increased risk of developing cancer."
    The dust has proved much harder to detect and eliminate than experts had expected. The force of the towers' collapse pulverized the buildings and their contents into particles so fine, they were missed by standard testing techniques. In addition to the asbestos and caustic concrete dust, the cloud contained benzene from jet fuel, lead from thousands of computers, mercury from millions of fluorescent lights, and radioactive compounds from smoke detectors. The haze blanketed the area for blocks, and residue is still being discovered.
    Just in the last few weeks, dangerous levels of asbestos-laden dust have been found in building air shafts, school carpeting and in a dozen firetrucks. Despite the EPA's claim that the level of asbestos poses no significant risk and that its cleanup is designed mostly to allay residents' concerns, critics from within the agency say that the EPA deliberately chose to use crude detection methods in a limited area—decisions that significantly blunted the agency's findings. "All the experienced people in the agency knew immediately it was a disaster and would need massive remediation," said Hugh Kaufman, the former chief investigator for the EPA ombudsman's office and now a policy analyst at the agency. "But decisions on how to approach it were made from the White House down, rather than from the scientists on the ground up. The message was to get downtown up and running as soon as possible and worry about the rest later."
    Cate Jenkins, a senior environmental scientist at the EPA, said the agency refused offers from other EPA branches to provide more sensitive testing equipment the week after the towers' fall. "They were using the equivalent of a magnifying glass when they should have been using an electron microscope," she said. "And now that they have the chance to redeem themselves, the new cleanup plan is using methods that our own studies show fall short. It's grossly inadequate."
    Mears, the EPA spokeswoman, conceded that the HEPA vacuuming and wet extraction the agency is offering will remove only 60% to 70% of asbestos fibers. And although there may be a risk of recontamination through the air vents, they can't compel residents to open their doors to the EPA cleaners, she said. "In order for us to demand access to people's homes, it would have to be a public health emergency," Mears said. "We don't think that is the situation we have here at all."
    At Stuyvesant High School, four blocks from ground zero, parents do consider the situation an emergency. Because the school was a staging ground for rescue workers, parents and teachers have been especially concerned about contamination. The Board of Education assured them that the school was safe before students returned in October. But after about 10% of the students and employees reported new-onset asthma, persistent coughing and wheezing in a survey conducted by the parents' association, they insisted on more testing. In April, consultants found that the air quality was unacceptable by EPA standards, discovered elevated lead levels and noted that the air ducts had not been cleaned.
    With the help of Watergate lawyer Richard Ben-Veniste, a Stuyvesant alumnus, the parents' association forced the board to agree to clean the ventilation system and retest before students returned to school in September. The Department of Education said it has spent $1.7 million since Sept. 11 on decontaminating the school. In August, additional checks found asbestos levels 250 times the legal limit in the auditorium carpet. One day late last month, workers were swabbing the ventilation system—without protective gear—and releasing more asbestos-laden dust into the air, said Jenna Orkin, a parent who had stopped by the school during the cleanup. Now, teachers and students are debating whether to return to the school. "The Board of Education has an obligation to provide safe schools, and when they told us it was OK to come back, I believed them," said Paul Edwards, whose son Brian is a Stuyvesant student. "At this point, I feel totally betrayed."
    Although homes are covered by the government plan, businesses are not. Many larger companies can afford to have high-level decontaminations performed, but many small businesses already struggling since Sept . 11 may simply forgo testing and hope for the best.

Asbestos Dust Remains

    Even after extensive cleanup, asbestos dust can still be found. Before the Wall Street Journal moved back into its offices last month at the World Financial Center, across the street from the World Trade Center site, the company wanted to be sure its workspace was safe. Its dust-shrouded offices were often pictured to illustrate the depth of the fallout, its computers and chairs blanketed with ash like a modern-day Pompeii. Nearly 70% of respondents to an employee-driven survey cited health concerns about returning. The walls were stripped to the concrete and resurfaced, carpeting and furniture replaced, and the air vents checked.
    But even after parent company Dow Jones; the landlord, Brookfield Properties Corp., and the newspaper union each hired an independent consultant to do the highest-level testing and got the all-clear, a construction crew found a small amount of asbestos-laced dust remaining in the ventilation system. It was cleaned out and the area retested. But most residents don't have the deep pockets to pay for independent testing, or even the awareness that the lingering dust poses a health risk.
    Whether out of denial, privacy concerns or pragmatism, only about 10% of eligible households have applied for the EPA cleanup. Many of those who were most concerned have moved out of the neighborhood and have had their places taken by those more interested in lower rents or subsidies than in fears about the long-term health effects. More than half of the people who lived in the development closest to the World Trade Center, Battery Park City, left the area last year. But because of deep rent cuts and a federal grant program that offers as much as $12,000 for every resident who moves into the area and stays for two years, occupancy is back up to more than 90% and sales and rental prices are back to normal. The new tenants tend to be young singles, agents say.
    Real-estate shoppers in trendy TriBeCa, just north of the site, are more aware of the subsidies than of the EPA program, said Bruce Ehrmann, a senior vice president of the Stribling and Associates real estate firm and a longtime TriBeCa resident who applied for cleanup for his own apartment. "The air quality has not been a sales issue for months."
    Other worried residents are simply ineligible because the EPA's offer doesn't extend to Brooklyn. "They should do the cleaning in concentric circles radiating from ground zero, building by building, until they don't find high levels," said Kaufman, the EPA policy analyst. "We usually let science determine the area of contamination, not a politician with a pin and a map."


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