Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article|
The Air Down There: A
year after the attacks, concerns linger over the long-term health effects on residents and
rescue workers who breathed in contaminated air
By Julie Scelfo and Suzanne Smalley, Newsweek, September 6, 2002
One Year Later When the World Trade Center exploded in a cloud of dust and fire
last year, LaVerna Bradley, 71, watched in horror from her apartment on Madison Street,
just ten blocks away. But within minutes, shealong with her husband, Arthur, who
suffers from Parkinsons disease and has difficulty walkingwere unable to see
much of anything. A cloud of thick, gray dust blew through their open windows before
Arthur was able to close them. LaVerna, who was bedridden after having minor surgery the
day before, was too weak to get up or prevent the contaminated dust from overtaking the
apartment. A fine powder quickly coated everything in their home, including the kitchen
counter, the velvet sofa, and the bed the couple had bought when they got married in 1984.
It was like being in England during the blitz, says LaVerna. Everything
A YEAR AFTER THE September 11 attack on New York, the Ground Zero clean-up is officially
over. But the health impact on workers at the site and on lower Manhattan residents
remains largely unknown. Tens of thousands of people live in the surrounding area.
Thousands of others spent months working at the recovery site, often directly atop the
smoky ruins. In the days following the attacks, the Environmental Protection Agencys
Christie Whitman proclaimed that there was no reason to worry. [T]he public in these
areas is not being exposed to excessive levels of asbestos or other harmful
substances, Whitman said in a September 18 press release. New Yorkers need not
be concerned about environmental issues as they return to their homes and
workplaces, she added three days later.
But as information about toxins in the dust began to make headline news, critics
questioned whether Whitman had spoken too quickly. Tests soon revealed, among other
findings, that some of the downtown dust samples contained significant amounts of
asbestos. Federal law requires that materials containing more than one percent asbestos
must be cleaned and disposed of by professionally licensed workers wearing proper masks.
Yet many of the rescue workers spent days or weeks at the disaster site with nothing
covering their faces.
Residents who remained in lower Manhattan also resumed life without masks, choosing to
believe the governments assurances. The EPA says it has no regulations or standards
regarding indoor air quality and deferred decisions about cleaning indoor spaces to New
York City. The city, in turn, delegated those cleaning duties to tenants and building
owners who could decide for themselves how much, or even whether, to clean. While some
residents hired professionals, others like the Bradleys couldnt afford the costly
effort and instead cleaned sporadically cleaned using mops or vacuums in the months
following the attacks. You cant sweep this stuff, says the grandmother
of 17. Its hidden in corners and underneath furniture. I had to buy a cover
for the couch because every time my grandkids sit down a light dust rises up.
Meanwhile, hundreds of the firefighters and other rescue workers began having respiratory
problems. Bobby Stanlewicz, who had rushed to Ground Zero after the Towers collapsed on
September 11, spent days fighting the fires that still spewed from beneath the wreckage
and helping his coworkers search for signs of lifeoften working 16-hour shifts, even
though the smoke was irritating his throat and lungs. It wasnt until weeks after
hed stopped working at the site that the 13-year veteran firefighter began to notice
a tightness in his chest. I had a couple of nights where I couldnt breathe at
all, says Stanlewicz, 35. I felt like I was suffocating.
Within six months of the tragedy, an estimated 332 of the 10,000 firefighters who reported
to the site, including Stanlewicz, required medical leave of one month or longer. Even
some who did not take medical leave still complain about shortness of breath, persistent
coughs and tightness in the chest. It is very probable that some proportion of the
firefighters who worked at Ground Zero have sustained permanent damage to their
lungs, says Dr. Jaime Szeinuk, a doctor who works at Mt. Sinai Hospitals
occupational and environmental health clinic. Some of them may not have sustained
permanent damage, but if they continue to work as firefighters and become exposed to more
smoke, their condition will be aggravated. For some of these men, the damage could be
As news of the firefighters heath problems spread, lower Manhattan residents who
believed they might still be living in contaminated apartments began demanding more tests
of the dust in their homes and workplaces. Other groups formed to challenge authorities to
do a better job cleaning up the lower Manhattan schools. Jenna Orkin, who has become an
environmental activist in the wake of the September 11 attacks, pulled her 17-year-old son
out of Stuyvesant High School in February. He didnt speak to her for months but
began to cheerlead her efforts when independent test results became available two weeks
ago showing alarming asbestos levels throughout the school. In the auditorium, asbestos
levels were 250 times the safety limit, according to independent tests performed by Howard
Bader, an environmental engineer hired by a parents association. Yet Stuyvesant High
School waited until July to clean its ventilation system, after assuring parents that it
had been cleaned in October, Orkin says.
The New York City board of education says testing was done in October, though spokesman
Tom Antonen concedes that it consisted mainly of blowing air through the vents. The
decision to clean out the vents with soap and water this summer came after low levels of
lead were found in the system. Still, Antonen says that the board has spent $1.7 million
so far on cleaning and testing at Stuyvesant High School. There have literally been
thousands of air quality tests done and all of them have come back normal, he adds.
Orkin remains skeptical. The testing done during the school year was grossly
inadequate, she says. I think the consequences of this are going to be vast
and I worry about increased cancer rates and birth defects. Concerns like these
reached a fever pitch this summer. Although most lower-Manhattan residents dont
think they had the same level of exposure as the firefighters who worked directly on the
pile of rubble, they are worried about the long-term implications of breathing the fine,
particular dust. Under increasing pressure from local residents and officials, the federal
government finally stepped in. On May 8, the EPA announced it would provide clean-up and
testing to any downtown residents who wanted it. In August, the EPA announced that it
would extend the deadline for registration by a month, until October 2, but the news never
reached some families like the Bradleys, who, despite multiple calls to FEMA, never heard
about the EPAs offer to clean. At press time, only 3,185 residents had requested
cleaning and testing, with another 902 asking for testing alone.
The EPA and some experts say most of those tests should yield normal (or near normal)
results. In fact, the EPA has maintained all along that the test results conducted so far
have not shown dangerous levels of contaminants and that the heightened concern among
downtown residents over pollution problems has more to do with fear of the unknown than
with specific scientific data. Were on the cutting edge of science here.
Theres not a textbook that we could pull off a shelf that says This is what
you do when huge buildings collapse, says Mary Mears, a spokeswoman for the
EPAs office in New York. I recognize that we do have our critics right now,
but, sadly, Im afraid that all of the good work we have done has gone
unnoticed. The EPA began testing outdoor air in lower Manhattan immediately after
the tragedy, and didnt stop until the week after recovery work officially ended at
the site in June. The agency also sent a dozen trucks to vacuum dust from the street and
erected a 31,000-square-foot cleaning station to prevent workers from carrying the dust
outside the World Trade Center area.
Still, many health and safety advocates insist that the EPA has been minimizing the risks
of air pollution in the area. From our perspective...were coming up on the
anniversary date and the EPA is just now seriously addressing residents
problems, says Carrie Loewenherz, a certified industrial hygienist with the New York
Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. And the EPA is still not acknowledging
that theres a health risk problem, even though there are documented cases of asthma,
bronchitis and other respiratory disease. The New York City Department of Health is
making plans to register 200,000 people for a longitudinal study to monitor unusual
symptoms among people who were heavily impacted by the debris. No one can say with
absolute certainty until time has passed whether there will be any longer term health
impacts than the ones that we saw in the immediate aftermath, says Sandra Mullin, a
spokesperson for the New York City Department of Health. Its something we
cant know and wont know until over time.
While downtown residents and firefighters are encouraged by the federal governments
recent agreement to help with clean-up and testing, many grumble that its too
little, too late. The damage has been done to my throat, says LaVerna
Bradley, who began to cry as she described how she has been unable to swallow and has
trouble breathing. I know its related to the dust that remains in my
apartment, she adds. Ive never had problems like this before.
Though firefighters have finished their work at Ground Zero, they also remain at risk.
Scores of firefighters found out in July that theyd been driving contaminated trucks
all year. The non-profit New York Environmental Law and Justice Project (NYELJP) conducted
independent tests of debris taken from some fire trucks still in service after September
11. The results showed asbestos levels of 5 percent in the debris found inside at least
one truck, five times the widely recognized threshold for material that civilians can
safely handle. Several other trucks tested by NYELJP also showed elevated asbestos rates.
Philip McArdle, the health and safety director of the Uniformed Firefighters Association,
said he is saddened by the way the government has forgotten the men it once heralded as
heroes. We did a very good job of taking care of the dead after September 11,
he said. But were doing a very bad job of taking care of the living.
Hopefully, its not too late to take care of both.
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