WTC dust makes some ill

Dec. 7, 2001 at 9:38 PM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- Ever since the big gray cloud of dust blew through Lower Manhattan from the collapsing World Trade Center's Twin Towers Sept. 11, there have been conflicting opinions on what to do with it.

The dust from the pulverized walls, concrete, wood, class and plastic of the two 110-story Twin Towers covered several blocks surrounding the World Trade Center.

"On Sept. 11 the dust cloud was like a sonic boom through Lower Manhattan -- my windows were open so my apartment near the World Trade Center got filled with dust," said Indira Singh, a risk architect and volunteer emergency medical technician told United Press International. "I started noticing that many of my neighbors are getting sick."

Singh, who coughed throughout the interview, said that before the terrorist attacks she was a mountain climber and a pilot and in the top physical condition of her life but since then she has a cough, onset asthma, chest pain and headaches that won't quit.

"When we cleaned our apartments, we'd get sick, and then we couldn't continue cleaning," Singh said. "Many of my neighbors have coughs, headaches, ugly rashes, eye infections, people coughing up blood, kidney infections, upper respiratory problems, swollen tongues and most bizarre of all about a dozen had their dental work fall out."

Singh said that many of her neighbors who live on Pearl Street, near the 16-acre site where the World Trade Center once stood, have fallen through the cracks.

"Depending on which Federal Emergency Management Agency's inspector you'd get, if there were no widows broken no assistance was given, even though dust was everywhere," Singh said. "Many are now unemployed, have lost health insurance and don't qualify for Red Cross assistance if a FEMA inspector didn't see obvious broken windows and/or body parts."

The New York City Department of Health has collected air samples and said while some asbestos was found and residents advised to take precautions, "most of the air samples taken have been below levels of concern. The risk of developing an asbestos-related illness following an exposure of short duration, even to high levels, is extremely low."

Attorney Joel R. Kupferman, of New York Environmental Law Justice Project in New York City, disagreed and said there is no safe level of asbestos. He took numerous samples of dust from the World Trade Center site for analysis to ATC Associates of New York.

"The most distressing finding is that three of the four samples contain fiberglass at levels between 10 percent to 15 percent," Kupferman said.

"These tiny, needle-like particles are probably causing much of the reported irritation and pain in the eyes and respiratory system."

The National Toxicology Program lists respirable glass fibers as "reasonably anticipated" to cause cancer. The International Agency for Research in Cancer lists certain of the glass fibers as "possibly carcinogenic to humans."

"Analyses of our dust samples showed that one in four samples tested contained 2.1 percent asbestos, which is more than double the 1 percent level at which a material is legally designated as hazardous, and is subject to special abatement and removal procedures," said Kupferman. "These results were consistent with those reported by EPA, with reported levels as high as 3.3 percent asbestos in some samples."

Kupferman said that New Yorkers returning to their apartments have no way of knowing if the dust there contains more than 1 percent asbestos that requires professional abatement.

"Health agencies should advise building owners, employers, and individuals to do what we did: Send samples to a laboratory -- the tests usually take less than an hour and cost under $50," he said. "The analyses can provide guidance for choosing safe cleanup methods."

Although the Environmental Protection Administration in Washington has issued a number of statements saying hazards were low, EPA Region II spokeswoman Mary Helen Cervantes said, "We recommend that if there is more than a minimal amount of dust in an apartment, and this is subjective, but if you can put a ruler in it, a professional contractor should be called to remove it."

For minimal amounts of dust the EPA recommends following the city Health Department guideline.

Some of city's recommendations said tenants should wet down dust and remove it in layers, rinse rags in a sink and use special HEPA vacuums because regular vacuums would redistribute dust in the air.

The health department's advice has been criticized by Kupferman as well as Cate Jenkins, with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Washington, part of federal Superfund program. Jenkins called the advice "ludicrous."

"They advise: If curtains need to be taken down, take them down slowly to keep dust from circulating," Jenkins told the New York Daily News. "EPA regulations do not allow anyone to oversee and perform ... asbestos removal, such as a resident in an apartment building or a building owner."

According to Jenkins, federal regulations are very specific and don't allow for individuals to remove asbestos. She said there has been a "breakdown where the federal EPA and the city are scrambling to get everything back to normal, and ignoring the law."

Asbestos removal is highly regulated by federal, state and New York City governments, requiring respirators, moon suits, gloves and eyewear as well as cleanup and disposal procedures.

Andrew Tucker, a spokesman for the city health department, told UPI that the recommendations were only for those tenants returning to a building after it's been inspected for structural stability and that the city's Department of Environmental Protection had already dealt with water and air issues.

However, the DEP does not test indoors. It recommends that minimal dust accumulations can be cleaned using wet methods but if debris tests positive for asbestos, only certified asbestos handlers be used.

"We did our best to test and monitor the environment outside the buildings (air and water tests), to advise landlords to check and monitor in their buildings for asbestos and where to find certified contractors to remove it if it was there and to tell the public that if they feel a landlord has not done an adequate job in cleaning or asbestos removal to check with us and we will check it out," said Diana Chapin, first deputy commissioner of the New York City DEP.

A group of 1,000 South Baptist volunteers who have cleaned apartments near Ground Zero since Oct. 18 have some concern that they may not have taken as many precautions as they could have and cleaned some areas that contained asbestos. Referred to apartments by the American Red Cross, teams of four men and two woman have cleaned about 600 apartments, about half of them in Battery Park City.

"Some had windows broken and had a lot of debris and some just needed a good cleaning," said Bob Helms, an organizer for the volunteers from 13 states who spent their own money to fly to New York City. "We had double-filter masks and tyvak suits if it was extremely dusty and what we did was a good spring cleaning -- we cleaned books, behind book cases and anywhere we found dust."

According to Helms, the volunteers did not use the wet method of removing dust but they used a host of cleaning products such as Pledge, window and bathroom cleaners.

"If an apartment tests positive for asbestos the volunteers would be crazy to clean it without taking precautions," said a certified asbestos contractor who didn't want to be identified.

"People should be advised that there is more than cleaning of the dust involved and that mattresses, upholstered furniture and carpets should be replaced."

(Reporting by Alex Cukan in Albany.)

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