Thursday, April 24, 2008

Through the Haze: the Truth about 9/11 Air

by Mike Weiss

New York, April 30 - “I lived downtown in Battery Park City before 9/11, a couple of blocks south,” said Craig Hall. “On 9/11 I took my children to school that morning, one to nursery, one to PS 89. I came out of my son’s nursery the first plane had just gone in. I walked south back to Battery Park, I was standing and . . . then I saw the second plane go in. I watched it fly down West Street and then go into the second tower just above my head . . . I grabbed my children, one was in a stroller and I ran for my life. We were caught on the edge of the dust cloud. Luckily we ran north and the wind for some reason that day the wind blew south, and it saved us.”

Hall is president of the World Trade Center Residents Coalition, and on 9/11 as far as he knew, he and his family were safe. He knows better now. Because no government agency warned him about the dangers from 9/11 dust he went back to his apartment a few days after the tragedy and over the next five weeks tried cleaning the apartment himself.

“The place was covered, dust everywhere – the windows were open.”

Severe allergies, nosebleeds, 30 percent decreased lung capacity – as well as the thyroid surgery his wife has endured - are all common signs of the effects of breathing in the toxins from 9/11. The approximately 3,000 direct deaths on that day can be blamed on the terrorists, but who is responsible for the approximately 10,000 people suffering physical health impairments because of the air they breathed in soon after?

Even if the causes of 9/11 air contamination are gone, there is now a new hazard in the air. The unprecedented construction boom in lower Manhattan has produced 35 new buildings since 9/11 and many more are under construction. Idling diesel concrete mixers, bulldozers, cranes, trash-haulers – all spew their toxins into residential areas. And all this dust from demolition and construction activity seems like and eerie replay of 9/11, where a seemingly unconcerned government just stands by as the populace takes the brunt of a new and unknown health hazard in its midst.

Christine Todd Whitman and the EPA

Soon after the events of 9/11, on September 18, 2001, Christine Todd Whitman, in her role as Administrator of the federal EPA, released a statement often used in subsequent accusations against her. Still supported by the EPA (, the statement reads: "Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C. that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink."

Yet the day before, on September 17, 2001, an internal EPA memo from their Region 2 World Trade Center Emergency Response Activities to Date series states just the opposite. Released through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the New York Environmental Law & Justice Project, the EPA memo states: “The highest [asbestos] levels came from a monitor located one-half block from ground zero, demonstrating the need for rescuers to wear appropriate protective gear.”

Instead of making this memo public and alerting people to a hazardous waste danger, as is the clearly stated responsibility of the EPA by powers granted through the National Contingency Plan, Administrator Whitman did just the opposite; she reassured the public that the air was officially deemed safe. Thousands of New Yorkers are now paying the price.

How do we know people got sick because of 9/11 dust?

There are three main centers for studying people who have sought medical care for conditions they believed were caused by 9/11. The Mount Sinai Medical Monitoring Program is the largest and screens all Ground Zero workers who have come in for help. As of December 2006, this was 9,442 “responders” - workers who were performing their jobs as part of the 9/11 rescue and recovery – but not firefighters. The FDNY runs its own medical monitoring unit near their headquarters in Brooklyn. The third center is for all non-responders such as residents, office workers, and students. This is the World Trade Center Environmental Health Center, and from its main clinic in Bellevue Hospital has so far cared for about 2,400 patients.

In a report published in Environmental Health Perspectives in December 2006, the Mount Sinai experts reported numerous respiratory problems in the 9,442 people they studied. Sixty-nine percent had new or worsened symptoms while performing WTC work. “Forced vital capacity” (FVC), a measurement of lung functioning, was five times worse than in the general U.S. population. Overall respiratory symptoms and abnormalities were, “significantly associated with early arrival at the site.”

At the WTC Environmental Health Center, director Joan Reibman admits, “how do we know these illnesses are WTC-related or not? There’s a lot we don’t know.”

However, she took part in a New York State Department of Health survey which began soon after 9/11 and was completed a year and half later. In it, residents around Ground Zero showed increased symptoms and shortness of breath, symptoms which were new to this population.

In her early work with the WTC Environmental Health Center, Dr. Reibman first saw patients with asthma and other pulmonary symptoms as well as many people with sinus inflammations. More recently, the medical conditions she sees have begun expanding to other areas of the body. Now, more people are coming in with endocrine problems, various cancers, and mental health conditions related to post traumatic stress from witnessing events related to 9/11.

“We see a whole spectrum. Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed,” she said.

What was the government thinking?

“There was a lot of flag-waving,” said Joel Kupferman, director of the New York Environmental Law & Justice Project about the days after 9/11. “A lot of pressure from the top to admit that the country didn’t take a hit.”

Dave Newman, an Industrial Hygienist with the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, and a former member of the EPA’s WTC Expert Technical Review Panel, said, “just look at the whole record of the Bush administration on regulatory cut-backs and especially on environmental issues.”

Then there is the rush to construction. Thirty-five new buildings have been constructed in lower Manhattan since 9/11 and more are planned. This speed has contributed to the 18 construction-related deaths in 2006, 12 in 2007, and 13 so far in only the first four months of this year. For builders and supporters of this construction, air quality regulations only seem to get in the way.

The lack of credibility from government inspectors is sometimes painfully obvious. Lynda Caspe lives on the top floor of a building on Franklin Street, a few blocks south of Canal Street. Broken skylights in her apartment allowed 9/11 dust to accumulate in her apartment, and when she contacted the city’s Department of Environmental Protection for help, they sent over someone to take a look.

“I asked him where’s your equipment,” Caspe related. “’What equipment,’ he said, ‘I’m just looking.’ Then he said, ‘it doesn’t look dusty to me!’.”

“I asked him if he wanted to see the roof, so we went up to the roof. There were piles of it all over the place so I asked him about it. ‘Doesn’t look dusty to me,’ he said!”

Caspe then hired a lawyer who knew an EPA inspector and this inspector was able to arrange for a proper inspection. Using high-quality air monitoring equipment, the EPA inspection revealed high levels of asbestos in the samples in Caspe’s apartment, and the EPA soon after agreed to clean her apartment.

When asked if she has trouble believing anything the government says now, Caspe laughed, “I believed George Bush when he said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction so you know something’s wrong with my mind!”

The community responds

On Sunday April 13, 2008, in the auditorium of the Borough of Manhattan Community College near the WTC site, community groups came together to hear testimony from a panel of residents, professionals, and government officials involved in the 9/11 aftermath.

In Chinese, Spanish, and Polish translations, an audience of about 120 listened as panel members openly expressed their anger at the government and the despair they felt. Primary criticisms of the government included not alerting the public of dangers the government knew about and for not taking care of the medical expenses people have now. These expenses can run into hundreds of dollars a month for people exposed to the air at 9/11 or to the dust in the weeks afterwards.

Expressing the widely-felt sense of betrayal, audience member Alex Sanchez asked the panel, “we helped this country get up when it was on its knees and now we have to beg for help? It shouldn’t have to be this way.”

Lea Geronimo, a pretty 37-year-old who looks in her twenties, was an office worker near the Stock Exchange on 9/11. Now she has numerous health issues which include bronchitis, gynecological cysts, neurological deteriorations, and patches of psoriasis, whose scabs litter her face, stomach, and arms.

“It pisses me off,” Geronimo said. “The whole world economy was supposed to be in flux. Most of us had this feeling of camaraderie, ‘I need to get my office together.’ We could have left, the residents could have left, everybody, the students, but we all stayed and we did our part. Now we need the government to fund our health care and to do studies, real studies,” she said.

When asked if she felt the government was more honest now in reporting and alerting the public to air quality hazards, she said, “it doesn’t matter any more. Now we are the evidence.”

Air quality today

The Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center is supposed to be monitoring air quality for the numerous construction sites in lower Manhattan. However, this ad hoc government agency is not accountable to any other and is not responsible for reporting their data to the public. Of the data they do post on their web site, it’s unclear how they collect it or at what times of the day. Since they do not respond to media requests for information, it’s impossible to clear these issues up.

The agency that is officially responsible for monitoring air quality, as mandated in the 1970s Clean Air Act, is the federal EPA. Because the Ground Zero area is no longer considered an emergency hazard site, air monitoring has reverted back to standard monitoring procedures which call for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to establish air-monitoring stations and to report their data to the EPA.

Because these procedures are mandated by law, it’s easier to see how the state does its testing, even as limited as it is. For example, the closest state air monitoring station to the 9/11 site is located near City Hall at one Pace Plaza, not a good thing for the residents who live across the street from Ground Zero construction. Also, all the state air monitoring stations are located on rooftops, far away from the diesel engines on the ground. In addition, the state is only required to report its data as averaged over a 24-hour period. This means that the air quality on cool nights when construction stops is given the same statistical weight as the air quality during a hot summer day when construction machines are running full blast.

Gretchen Ferenz, the director of the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, has done a study which looked into the air quality in lower Manhattan. The initial purpose of her study, as part of a training program for her students, was to see if vegetation effected the way particles behaved in the atmosphere. Specifically, they were looking to see if the presence of trees and other plants reduced or had any effect on the way particulate matter is suspended in the air.

By chance, Ferenz’s study required her to compare her own air monitor readings taken at ground level to data being reported by the state air monitoring equipment, which is all located on the rooftops of buildings. Even though she is quick to point out she is not a public health specialist and her study of particulate matter in the air should not be used to make any statements about public health, she said, “let’s just say our results are consistent (with the state’s), at a certain level they don’t change much. But we found that at intersections, when the light is red? Zooooooom - our readings are off the chart.”

Joseph Zadroga’s comments, delivered at the 9/11 Community Health Forum on April 13, 2008. Zadroga is the father of former NYPD detective James Zadroga, who died as a result of his exposure at the WTC site

Mike Weiss is a former finance analyst for
the City of New York and an intern reporter for the Narragansett Times of Rhode Island. He is currently studying Biomedical Journalism at New York University.


Anonymous said...

I am Lynda Caspe, the woman who lived on the top floor of a building on Franklin Street in lower Manhattan on 9/11. I just wanted to say that the lawyer I hired after the the World Trade Center attack to test my roof for asbestos was Joel Kupferman.

Anonymous said...

This is Lynda Caspe. Just a correction. The EPA found high levels of asbestos on the roof of my building 150 Franklin Street as well as my loft. After doing the tests they realized that if my building was covered with asbestos then so was every other building in the area. This led to a meeting at the EPA to which I and my lawyer Joel Kupferman were invited. That meeting led to the clean up of lower Manhattan up to Canal Street.