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, she—along with her husband, Arthur, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has difficulty walking—were 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 was confused.”

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 Agency’s 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 government’s 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 couldn’t afford the costly effort and instead cleaned sporadically cleaned using mops or vacuums in the months following the attacks. “You can’t sweep this stuff,” says the grandmother of 17. “It’s 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 life—often working 16-hour shifts, even though the smoke was irritating his throat and lungs. It wasn’t until weeks after he’d 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 couldn’t 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 Hospital’s 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 career ending.”

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 didn’t 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 don’t 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 EPA’s 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. “We’re on the cutting edge of science here. There’s 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 EPA’s office in New York. “I recognize that we do have our critics right now, but, sadly, I’m 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 didn’t 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...we’re 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 there’s 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. “It’s something we can’t know and won’t know until over time.”

While downtown residents and firefighters are encouraged by the federal government’s recent agreement to help with clean-up and testing, many grumble that it’s 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 it’s related to the dust that remains in my apartment,” she adds. “I’ve 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 they’d 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 we’re doing a very bad job of taking care of the living.” Hopefully, it’s not too late to take care of both.

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