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NYC under an asbestos cloud
By Andrew Schneider, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 14, 2002
Federal and state officials have grossly underestimated the number of people in lower Manhattan who are at risk of lethal asbestos-related disease because of the collapse of the World Trade Center, independent experts say.
Evaluations by teams of leading asbestos researchers show the increased risk to people who live, work or study in homes or offices that have not been properly decontaminated could be as high as one additional cancer death for every 10 people exposed.
These figures come as leading government officials continue to insist that there is no long-term health risk to those living and working near ground zero from the dust of hundreds of thousands of tons of asbestos-containing products used in the floors, walls, ceilings and steel frame of the twin towers.
"I am glad to reassure New Yorkers ... that their air is safe," Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Whitman said a week after the attacks.
Such assessments are disputed by Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, which represents more than 250 unions.
"The agencies have made it a priority to get the lower Manhattan financial and stock markets up and running at any cost," he said. "In so doing, they have allowed thousands of people to be exposed to substances that haven't even all been identified, let alone quantified."
Federal and state officials are not disputing that the dust is making thousands of New Yorkers ill. For months, people have been plagued with severe sinus infections, asthma attacks, nausea, headaches, rashes, bloodshot eyes and severe coughing.
These problems are caused by the pulverized concrete, fiberglass, metal and other debris in the toxic dust storm and smoke that inundated the city after the towers collapsed Sept. 11.
These symptoms are not indications of asbestos exposure. It takes 18 to 30 years for asbestos to exhibit its deadly effects. This latency period -- the amount of time from when a fiber is impaled in lung tissue to when a person becomes ill -- makes it easy to ignore or overlook the hazards of asbestos.
"Those (asbestos) exposures may have grave adverse public-health consequences, but we will not know exactly what those consequences are for decades," Shufro said.
New and old technology
When the World Trade Center went down, the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration rushed teams to the site. They have gathered thousands of samples of the dust that blanketed lower Manhattan, but they used 20-year-old methods for collecting and counting asbestos fibers to assess the health risks. The agencies and their state counterparts said only low levels of asbestos were found in the air outside.
"The public faces little or no danger from asbestos," numerous agency heads echoed.
Civilian scientists and physicians hired by unions, tenant groups, contractors and New York political leaders found just the opposite. Taking hundreds of samples, many inside apartments, offices and condos, these experts used the newest electron microscope technology and fiber-counting protocols. They found far more asbestos fibers than did government investigators. These private experts -- all regularly used by the government as consultants -- found levels in the dwellings that alarmed many assessing the health risk faced by New Yorkers.
"These eminent asbestos researchers brought state-of-the-art methods to lower Manhattan and ... what they found with the new technology is dramatically different than what EPA and New York state reported," said Cate Jenkins, a senior EPA chemist in the agency's hazardous waste division.
"For every asbestos fiber EPA detected, the new methods used by the outside experts found nine," Jenkins said. "This is too important a difference to be ignored if you really care about the health of the public."
Jenkins, a 22-year veteran of the EPA, talked about the asbestos levels that researchers Eric Chatfield and John Kominsky found in apartments and condos near the collapse that had not been cleaned or had been cleaned improperly.
"If people continue living and working in places that still have dust in the carpets, furniture, drapes and heating and cooling system, these fibers will continue to be resuspended," Jenkins explained. "The elevated risk could be from around one in a thousand extra cancers to maybe as high as one in 10."
Four other federal health experts -- two toxicologists, an epidemiologist and a physician -- from the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control, have studied the data gathered by Chatfield, Kominsky and a team headed by Hugh Granger of HP Environmental in Virginia. They agreed with Jenkins' interpretation of the data.
Officials at EPA headquarters declined repeated requests to comment on these statements.
No one really knows how many, if any, people might be killed by the asbestos. But a study released three weeks ago by EPA investigators on the health risks to asbestos-exposed vermiculite miners and their families in Libby, Mont., is ominous for New Yorkers.
"The concentrations of asbestos in settled dusts inside homes in Libby is comparable to the settled dusts inside the buildings in lower Manhattan," Jenkins said.
She and others in the agency are questioning why, if Libby is dangerous enough to be declared a Superfund site, the EPA is shrugging off even higher levels in New York.
"It is unfathomable to believe that EPA can stand behind antiquated science when the report on Libby, issued by the same agency, irrefutably documents the validity of the new methods," Jenkins said.
Many federal employees, contract scientists and physicians believe the confusion over how federal agencies are handling asbestos from the collapse is exacerbated by the government's long-fought internal disputes over what kind of asbestos is dangerous and how many fibers of what size it takes to sicken or kill.
New Yorkers feel abandoned
Nothing can be done about the enormous amount of asbestos and other toxic substances in the choking dust that terrified survivors and rescue workers gulped down as they fled from the collapsing towers.
The dust storm that crashed through Manhattan on Sept. 11 blew in windows and doors many blocks from ground zero. Air-conditioning units on rooftops and in windows sucked pounds of dust into apartments and building ventilation systems.
Some apartments had inches of gray dust covering everything. Most others within blocks of the attack had floors, walls, window coverings and furniture covered in a fine, powdery film.
At ground zero, hundreds of environmental and occupational health specialists hover nearby, trying to keep the workers in the pit safe and diminish future exposure to asbestos and other dangerous material.
But many of the 340,000 or so people who live in the lower part of the island believe they were abandoned and, at the least, fed conflicting information by federal, state and city officials on how to avoid asbestos exposure.
"It's like all of us who live down here really don't matter to anyone in any government. We've pretty much been left to fend for ourselves," said Steve Swaney, who, with his wife, lived in a Battery Park apartment.
The World Trade Center, which once filled his view from two blocks away, has been reduced to a huge hole in the ground. The site spews an acrid, dusty stench, nothing like the time-honored bouquet of roasting chestnuts that used to permeate lower Manhattan through the fall and winter.
The Swaneys' patio doors were open when the buildings collapsed. Their one-bedroom apartment, like many of the 238 others in their 15-story building, was covered in dust.
Those with insurance paid as much as $10,000 to have professional asbestos crews clean their apartments, Swaney said.
The landlord cleaned the rest.
"But there was still dust all over the place, and we couldn't get anyone to tell us how much asbestos was still there," he said.
The tenants paid to have the dust analyzed, and the dust contained levels of asbestos above 1 percent, which the EPA considers unsafe.
The landlord sent in another cleaning crew.
On the streets nine floors below Swaney's balcony, men in air tanks and moon suits slowly waddle behind and beside huge gushing mobile water tanks and purring SuperVac vacuum trucks.
The bizarre ballet was precisely orchestrated to wash out, suck up and capture the most minute pocket of dust from Battery Park's promenade, playgrounds and sidewalks, and even children's sandboxes in the park.
Swaney, a 58-year-old computer consultant, has a sick wife. Her ribs are sore from hours of gagging, coughing and choking from the same dust that EPA crews are so carefully removing on the street out front.
He wonders why the crews working on the street are so meticulous, using micro-filter vacuums, wearing protective clothing and respirators. But in his apartment, the three-person pick-up band of day laborers the landlord hired used brooms, dustpans, old mops and buckets, and everyday vacuum cleaners.
"They didn't even have masks," he said. "My wife had to find masks for them."
He wondered what government officials knew about the dust that they weren't sharing.
"To those of us in the middle of this, it's obvious that there is a conscious effort not to put out the facts," said Swaney, who heads his building's tenant association. "I don't know whether it's the White House, or the governor's mansion or the Mayor's Office, but someone doesn't want this truth about asbestos getting out.
"They don't want to close down lower Manhattan. We're talking about a lot of money, a lot of jobs. That's OK, but is it safe to live here?"
Swaney and his wife moved out of lower Manhattan.
"Christie Whitman says it's fine to return to our homes," he noted. "She's the EPA boss. Should we not believe her when she says our apartments are safe? But how does she know?"
That's a question that many are starting to ask.
The EPA says it can't test apartments and offices. None of the thousands of tests that the EPA cites as showing the asbestos risk is minimal were taken inside the buildings and rooms where people live, study and work.
"That's just not our job, and we have no policies or procedures for doing that type of testing," said Bonnie Bellow, spokeswoman for the EPA's region II office in New York. "We've never had to worry about asbestos in houses before."
But Granger, of the Virginia company HP Environmental, said, "To ignore testing the indoor environment for asbestos defies logic.
"Outside, the normal air movement dilutes and dissipates asbestos concentration. Inside, the fibers are trapped by four walls. They constantly get resuspended just by occupants walking on carpets, closing the drapes or having the air conditioner or heat go on or off."
Bad information from the start
In October, the EPA and OSHA were still putting out information to residents saying that if dust from the collapsed towers was in homes or offices "people should be sure to clean thoroughly and avoid inhaling dust while doing so."
State and federal agencies warned about the toxic material and asbestos in the dust and quickly told people to wear masks if they found dust when they returned to their homes.
Plain paper or cloth masks were worn by more then 1,800 volunteers from the Southern Baptist Church, the Salvation Army and other groups who cleaned hundreds of apartments.
No one told them that of the 29 most available brands of masks on the market, only one contained filters fine enough to stop the microscopic asbestos fibers.
The EPA and the state and city told residents who knew they had asbestos to "mop it up, wash it down and throw it away" and "avoid inhaling dust while doing so."
But state and federal asbestos-removal regulations demand that the cleanup be done by personnel wearing special respirators, full head-to-toe protective suits and gloves, and that the waste be disposed of only at authorized sites.
The EPA and New York Health Department point fingers at each other as the source of the misleading information.
Bellow admits that the EPA's Web site linked to incorrect guidance for office and apartment landlords and renters.
"It wasn't our information. It was from the (New York) state or city health department, and we removed it from our Web site last month," she said. "Obviously, our asbestos program was overwhelmed by a catastrophe of this magnitude. We are usually only concerned with asbestos from renovations and building demolition."
But a check of EPA's Web site yesterday found the same links were being used.
More bad information
When it came to the bureaucrats issuing medical information on asbestos, the contradictions were even more glaring.
The New York City Department of Health told residents that "asbestos-related lung disease results only from intense asbestos exposure experienced over a period of many years, primarily as a consequence of occupational exposures."
But the EPA's own experts as well as physicians at the CDC and private research centers have shown that a a single, heavy dose of asbestos can be enough to cause the lethal disease. Last month, the EPA issued a report documenting that casual exposure to asbestos has caused disease.
All the agencies play down the importance of test results that found dust samples that contained less then 1 percent asbestos.
"They keep calling it a trace. This implies to the public that there is no hazard from it," said Dr. Jerrold Abraham, director of environmental and occupational pathology at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.
"If you're talking about pure chrysotile asbestos, there are 10 billion or more fibers per gram, or about a fifth of a teaspoon.
"Their whole measuring and reporting system needs to be made more honest."
The EPA's Bellow tried to answer the criticism.
"We didn't see ourselves as the primary source for information on what the health implications were. We're not a health agency," she said, adding that these are national issues that EPA headquarters should be addressing.
But headquarters has repeatedly declined to discuss these policy issues. Even before Sept. 11, the EPA was in turmoil over how to handle several asbestos problems throughout the nation.
Granger, who has studied the importance of risk communication, said the ball was dropped.
"We are talking about the very lives of these people and those they love," he said. "Because of the misleading or completely inaccurate government information and guidance, people don't know where to turn or whom to trust."
Starting today, the medical group representing the 250 New York unions
will make doctors and proper asbestos safety equipment available to the
day laborers who are cleaning many buildings and apartments.