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WTC air quality questioned at hearing

Feb. 24, 2002 at 4:25 AM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- The controversy swirling around the environmental contamination in and around where the World Trade Center once stood continued in a hearing in New York City sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's ombudsman's office.

"We invited the leadership of the EPA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, the governor's office, state agencies, the mayor's office and city agencies, but none came," said Hugh Kaufman, the EPA ombudsman's chief investigator for the World Trade Center Saturday. "This is the first time this has happened in this type of hearing."

According to Kaufman, the hearing was intended to give those who lived and worked in Lower Manhattan in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 an opportunity to speak and to ask questions of some experts who have tested or studied the environmental impacts following the collapse of the Twin Towers.

About 200 people attended the all-day hearing at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse in Manhattan.

"I'm hoping the EPA will do the measurements to test for ultra-fine particles," said Thomas Cahill, a professor at University of California-Davis who analyzed the dust and smoke produced by the fire and the collapse of the buildings following the crashes of the two hijacked airliners into the Twin Towers.

Airborne particulate matter from the Detection and Evaluation of Long-range Transport of Aerosols (DELTA) Group at the University of California at Davis indicate that parts of Lower Manhattan in the months after Sept. 11 were contaminated with a variety of toxic substances, including metals at the highest levels ever recorded in air in the United States.

The U.C. Davis group also found that most of the contaminated respirable particulate matter was smaller than 2.5 microns, a size that can present serious health risks but is neither regulated nor monitored by EPA.

People with upper respiratory problems such as asthma could be adversely affected by inhaled ultra-fine particles, Cahill said.

David Newman, an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a non-profit, union-based health and safety organization in Manhattan, acknowledged the dedication of EPA personnel in their work in Lower Manhattan.

"However, early public statements by EPA appear to ignore or contradict information which was readily available to the agency at the time," he said. "For example, EPA asserted on its Web site on Sept. 21, 'City residents are not being exposed to dangerous contaminants,'" Newman continued.

"It's common knowledge extensive quantities of sprayed-on asbestos-containing fireproofing was present in the World Trade Center at the time of its collapse," he said. "In another example, EPA collected 143 bulk (dust) samples throughout lower Manhattan in the first days after Sept. 11. Seventy-six percent had detectable levels of asbestos, of which 34 percent contained greater than 1 percent asbestos by weight, the regulatory definition of asbestos-containing material."

Newsman cited a third example, saying "information on the probable presence of toxic substances was available under the hazardous chemical storage reporting requirements of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-know Act."

Examination of the data would have indicated the possible presence of barium, lead, chloroform, chlordane, carbon tetrachloride, cadmium, chromium, mercury, hydrogen sulfide, arsenic, and other toxic substances at the U.S. Customs Service, 6 World Trade Center, and of mercury, tetrachloroethylene, PCBs, arsenic, ethane, and other toxic substances at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, 1 World Trade Center, he said.

Newman maintained that widely publicized statements made after Sept. 14 and later by EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman downplaying any hazard influenced subsequent government response efforts as well as subsequent behavior by workers, employers, residents and landlords.

At one point she had said, "We have found particulate matter in the air, but ... it is not a problem for the general population."

"The message sent out by EPA was that there was no cause for concern and in many instances, workers did not receive specific instruction about personal protective equipment, including types of respirators and filters appropriate for the contaminants to which they were exposed," Newman said. "Respirator use even today among some Ground Zero workers and among most Lower Manhattan cleanup workers remains at unacceptably low and unsafe levels."

Landlords and employers, relying upon EPA statements, have encouraged or forced workers and tenants to return to or remain in offices and residences which, in many cases, have not been adequately tested for contaminants or appropriately cleaned or abated, Newman added.

"Routine safety and health regulations and concerns were ignored and brushed aside after Sept. 11," Newman told United Press International. "It was as if it was disloyal to even bring it up."

"We can't do anything for those who are gone, but we still do something for the rescuers and the residents," he said.

Some Lower Manhattan residents, frustrated with the conflicting statements of government agencies, have refused to attend any more hearings or meetings and have chosen to move out.

"We have been trying to get the health problems addressed but we're leaving and we're just counting the days," Danielle Brickman, a Pearl Street resident told UPI. "I developed World Trade cough about six weeks ago and my high-school-age son developed the cough long before that."

Brickman said that she and her family evacuated after the attacks, but the lung problems from the fires at Ground Zero led her to keep her son in midtown Manhattan. When they returned they tried to get out of their lease but her landlord refused to let them break their lease.

"Basically, we were bombed and we wanted to leave for our safety but our landlord wouldn't let us out and required us to pay more than $3,000 as a penalty," Brickman said. "We have air ducts from the rooftop air-conditioning system that shower us with dust because the landlord refuses to clean the air conditioning system."

Brickman's building staged a rent strike and as a result she can leave in April and pay half of the lease penalty. She and her husband cleaned dust in common areas in their building with a broom and vacuumed their apartment with a regular vacuum cleaner. Brickman worries that after her family leaves someone moving in will open the ducts for air conditioning and dust will sift in on them because they don't know it's there.

The U.S. Geological Survey found the dust created by the collapse of the World Trade Center had a pH of 12 -- as alkaline as drain cleaner.

"The dust was largely composed of particles of glass fibers, gypsum, concrete, paper and other building materials so it's not surprising that the pH level was high or that we found high levels of glass fibers," Geoff Plumlee, a research geochemist with the U.S.G.S. in Denver, told UPI.

According to NYOSH, highly alkaline dust when in contact with moist tissue in the body -- the throat, mouth, nasal passages, skin and eyes -- becomes corrosive and can cause burns.

"It's ironic that the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. is now offering grants of up to $12,000 for those willing to move near Ground Zero when they just ignore the health issue of the dust, Brickman said. "People are crazy to move here and take the money, I'm appalled at how they've handled this and how it all comes down to a money and no humanity."

The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. has approved grants of up to $500 a month or 30 percent of a rent or mortgage payment for tenants who sign a two-year lease.

At a hearing of the U.S. Senate subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands and Climate two weeks ago, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat who represents Lower Manhattan, said, "The EPA has failed in its mission to protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment by not exercising its full authority to test and clean all indoor spaces where people live and work."

Shortly afterwards, Whitman announced she agreed to establish the indoor air task force requested by Nadler and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat from New York, to evaluate air quality near the World Trade Center site.

Cate Jenkins, Ph.D., an environmental scientist with the Hazardous Waste Identification Division in Washington, D.C., told UPI, "There has been a breakdown where the EPA and the city are scrambling to get everything back to normal, and ignoring the law."

"It was contrary to the legally-binding applicable Clean Air Act National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants for Gov. Whitman to claim that there was no significant health hazard beyond the immediate vicinity of Ground Zero, because she had data at that time showing asbestos in surface dust at 1 percent or more beyond Ground Zero," Jenkins wrote in a memo on Dec. 3.

In light of the EPA saying it would look into indoor testing of air quality, Jenkins prepared an internal memo outlining guidelines on testing the air and dust in apartments in Lower Manhattan.

"Wipe tests should be taken on nonporous surfaces and for porous surfaces such as carpets, mattresses and upholstery," he said. "EPA should use ultrasonification extraction where actual samples are immersed in solution to extract particulates," Jenkins said.

"In a study, where carpeting that had been used for several years after asbestos contamination, the ultrasonification extraction was able to measure 100 times more asbestos than using a micro-vacuum," he said.

Jenkins said that in addition to contaminated furniture, upholstery which had been professionally cleaned after Sept. 11 as well as items cleaned by tenants with a standard vacuum cleaner should be tested.

"Following the federal code, a one-horsepower leaf blower at all surfaces followed by fans to keep particulate suspended should be done," Jenkins said. "For indoor air, testing protocol should simulate a child jumping on a couch or rolling on a rug" and "outdoors monitors should be placed low to the ground to simulate the breathing zone of a small child."

Adding to the controversy, EPA Ombudsman Robert Martin and Kaufman told Newsday in an interview that they planed to say at the hearing, "Residents, workers and Ground Zero platform visitors should wear respirators because of toxic air around the World Trade Center site and that it would take multibillions of dollars to do what needs to be done in Manhattan."

However, they did not specially address this at the hearing. Currently, only Ground Zero workers are advised to wear respirators. Whitman has proposed Martin's office be put under the EPA's inspector-general office, a move he claims is intended to silence him. A federal judge has issued a temporary injunction against the transfer.

In addition, one expert, who did not wish to be identified, told UPI that requiring respirators for the public could also cause additional problems because respirators have to be fitted correctly to function properly and those with asthma may not get enough air to breathe.

"I'm experienced in air quality and I have been spending a good deal of time in Lower Manhattan and if I thought I needed a respirator, I'd wear one, but I don't," he said.

"Outdoor air is constantly being flushed. The problem now is indoor air and many places have been closed up since the attacks because of the smoke and in the spring opened windows will churn up the dust and asbestos will not go away until it is removed properly."

(Reporting by Alex Cukan)

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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