Title Page Previous Next Contents | Part 3. Was environmental health protected on 9/11? Whistleblowers, watchdogs and wee little people >Critics surface

Critics surface


Behind the scenes, some environment experts were criticizing the agencies’ handling of the hazards.


In a series of scathing memos critical of EPA's response to 9-11, Cate Jenkins, a senior chemist in the EPA's hazardous waste division, and whistleblower, argued that asbestos levels in lower Manhattan were high enough to declare the entire area a Superfund site. Jenkins maintained that the level of asbestos contamination up to seven blocks away from Ground Zero was comparable to or higher than that found at the recently designated Superfund site in Libby, MT.

In an earlier December memo, Jenkins first criticized EPA for effectively "waiving" federal asbestos guidelines and endorsing more lenient cleanup methods. (12) She wrote that EPA’s own tests showed that more than a third of the agency’s bulk dust samples for asbestos were higher than 1 percent—the agency’s ‘action level’ under federal Clean Air Act standards.

She argued that the 1% level was only to be used to identify materials as containing asbestos, not as a standard of safety. That law, she argued, requires elaborate and strict procedures for asbestos removal to be followed and the use of trained asbestos cleanup companies. 

"We haven't waived any regulations," Walter Mugdan told a reporter for the Daily News, The agency's regional counsel insisted Jenkins was misreading the law. "She [Jenkins] assumes that they [the regulations] apply to the cleaning up of dust in residential or office buildings in lower Manhattan.

"When they were written, they were never intended to apply to something like a terrorist act. These regulations apply to owners and operators of a facility who are carrying out a demolition or renovation. They were never contemplated to apply to someone cleaning an apartment," Mugdan said.


Jenkins, meanwhile, argued that the agencies may have ignored some potent health hazards. “I think people really are at risk here, because unless there is thorough and effective cleanup, people are at risk of breathing asbestos fibers, and once they get in their lungs, they never go away.” (13)


Because microscopic asbestos fibers are so small, they can hang in the air and, when inhaled, penetrate and irritate the lung, she says. And studies have shown that breathing in airborne asbestos fibers can lead to a variety of ills—mesothelioma, or cancer of the lining of the lung, lung cancer and asbestosis, a thickening and scarring of the lungs.


Jenkins compared dust samples drawn from New York apartments in an independent study done by the Ground Zero Task Force with similar samples drawn from houses in Libby, Montana, a small town designated last December as a Superfund site after a surrounding vermiculite mine released deadly asbestos fibers into the air, allegedly killing hundreds. As a Superfund site, Libby was automatically added to the EPA’s National Priority List of toxic sites to be monitored and cleaned.


Although there weren’t many samples, says Jenkins, these results suggested that lower Manhattan could be eligible for listing as a Superfund site, the criterion being that its contamination, like Libby’s, poses “an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health.”


For example, one sample of dust from a windowsill in an apartment on Warren Street, four blocks away from Ground Zero, had 79,000 fibers per square centimeter of asbestos, some 22 times the highest level found in house dust in the town of Libby, which has just 5,000 residents, she notes.


Considering that Manhattan is so densely populated, and other pollutants are an added concern, its residents may be arguably at greater risk than officials admit, Jenkins believes.


Others agreed. Joel Kupferman, director of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, requested that the EPA and state of New York designate the World Trade Center site as well as neighborhoods within a five to six block radius as a federal Superfund site “to enable federal dollars to be spent on proper monitoring, inspection and cleanup.” The advantage of this, Kupferman says, is to guarantee that regulations are enforced to ensure thorough removal of toxic residues.


Paul Bartlett, an environmental scientist with the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, agreed that some sort of “emergency designation” for the whole area could help ensure health and safety, and perhaps institute an effective health-tracking system to follow the area’s public health. As it is now, he charges, “the kind of environmental monitoring we’re getting from EPA and other agencies doesn’t adequately measure contaminants.”


Earlier in November, local politicians had begun to weigh in. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), whose district encompassed the neighborhoods in Ground Zero, had earlier formed the Ground Zero Elected Officials Task Force, with Sen. Hillary Clinton, to coordinate the efforts of all the government representatives from the area. This Task Force had heard “countless complaints from citizens who suffered from adverse health effects, and/or lacked the resources necessary to test and clean their apartments and buildings properly,” Nadler said later. As mentioned, Nadler felt that the city had neglected the issue of indoor cleanup. When it commissioned a study to look at indoor pollution and the effect of the dust on people living downtown, it found extremely high levels of asbestos in two buildings near Ground Zero.


The Task Force also thought that the environmental health efforts were too scattered among agencies, and asked that their be one city agency designated to oversee everything having to do with debris cleanup in lower Manhattan."


“If I knew then what I know now, I would never have sent my child back [to school].”


By January, the smoldering fires where the Twin Towers once stood were finally quelled.  But if one looked beyond the crater to the hundreds of apartments and offices in the surrounding neighborhoods of the Financial District, Battery Park City, Tribeca and Chinatown, there were thousands of people still worried whether their homes and workplaces had been adequately cleaned up from the thousands of tons of dust thrown off by the buildings’ collapse — and wondering if it was safe to stay.


There were some 30,000 residents and as many as 300,000 were working in the area before the terror attacks, according to figures from the city and the New York Development Corporation.  But those numbers had greatly fallen.

Independent scientists, doctors and public health advocates had been coming forward to express concern that some health risks were being overlooked or not fully publicized.

At the time, for example, The Gotham Gazette reported, Dr. Paul Lioy of the University of Dentistry and Medicine of New Jersey revealed that he had found levels of lead in dust samples from around the World Trade Center disaster area that could be hazardous.  At a public meeting at New York University, Dr. Lioy said that the lead needed to be removed from homes and buildings, especially where children lived, and advised homeowners to apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for aid, and renters to approach their building managers.

Dr. Jacqueline Moline of Mt. Sinai Medical Center described fiberglass, one of the main constituents in air and dust samples at Ground Zero, as a suspected carcinogen and a significant irritant of the eyes, nose and throat. The reporter quoted Carrie Loewenherz, an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee for Occupational Health and Safety, that there are no state or federal standards for levels of fiberglass or for fiberglass cleanup. "There are guidelines [for cleanup] by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, but OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulates it as if it were regular, household dust," she told the newspaper.

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