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 firetruckseven 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
"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.
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 workersis
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
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
areadecisions 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
systemwithout protective gearand 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
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."
FAIR USE NOTICE
This article contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been
specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material
available in my efforts to advance understanding of democracy, economic,
environmental, human rights, political, scientific, and social justice issues,
among others. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted
material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance
with Title 17 U.S.C. Section
107, the material in this article is distributed without profit for research
and educational purposes.
Take me back to learn more