The Air Downtown: Tests Call it Clean, But Coughs Abound

The fire where the World Trade Center once stood is extinguished;

the city has erected a viewing platform for the benefit of ground-zero

tourists; and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has already outlined his vision for

a grand monument at the site.

It has become a point of pride for leaders of the city, the state

and the nation, determined to put a brave face on things, that the scene of the

Sept. 11 attack has become an almost normal part of the New York landscape.

But many of the elected officials who represent the areas hit

most heavily by the events of Sept. 11, as well as some experts who were

charged with examining the fallout, have been urging just about anyone who will

listen to take a closer look at what is happening in lower Manhattan. They say

that the understandable quest for normalcy carries the risk of papering over

potentially hazardous problems, including contamination by asbestos and a

potentially toxic cocktail of materials thrown together after the collapse of

the towers. In addition, several scientists who researched the contamination

issue called into question some of the conclusions reached by the government

about the environmental safety of areas around the World Trade Center.

“We’ve been urging the governmental agencies to do more

environmental testing on the sites, but they really haven’t listened to local

officials on that,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes

the World Trade Center site. “They still haven’t done the breadth of testing

necessary to allay people’s rational fears.”

In the weeks following Sept. 11, hundreds of tests were done by

governmental agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the

state Department of Health and the city Office of Emergency Management. The

results showed that, for the most part, levels of asbestos and other

potentially harmful materials were below levels that posed an immediate or

long-term risk. While there’s no reason to believe that those numbers are

inaccurate, some scientists say that far more research is necessary before

deciding that the health risks are minimal.

“Sometimes it looks to me that the E.P.A. and city agencies are

more concerned with keeping people from panicking than they are with providing

any meaningful data,” said one scientist who works for

afederallyfundedresearch-and-development center involved with one of the

studies of contaminants downtown. “They’re saying that there’s nothing to worry

about, but there’s no way they’ve been able to test every spot where studies

have indicated that there might be dangerous asbestos or other materials.”

Other scientists involved with researching the potential hazards

expressed unease with one of the central premises of the agencies’ conclusions

that everything is all right-namely that asbestos and other potentially

hazardous materials are only dangerous if airborne. “The presence of asbestos

in dust is not necessarily a significant health hazard,” reads the E.P.A. Web

site. “The dust must become airborne and be inhaled for it to cause significant

health problems.”

The dust-which was spread not only over outdoor surfaces in lower

Manhattan, but also into cars, apartments and nooks in building exteriors-is in

fact harmless as long as it lays dormant. The problem, according to some

experts, is that such dust is made airborne quite easily when disturbed by

anything from a gust of wind to a well-meaning building superintendent with a

broom. “Certainly asbestos is not an issue if it remains in the surface dust,”

said Roger Clark, a researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey who oversaw a

study commissioned by the E.P.A. that detected pockets of asbestos and other

materials. “The concern is about whether you hit a patch of asbestos and might

get a lot of it airborne quickly and breathe that in, or if you use some other

method that could concentrate the dust, like stirring it up with an ordinary

vacuum cleaner. The dust would have to be cleaned up with appropriate

protective measures.”

Despite such concerns, however, much of the removal of

potentially hazardous dust is being handled in an amateurish and haphazard way,

according to downtown community leaders. “There has been a completely

uncoordinated effort to clean up a lot of the dust that settled on windowsills

and roofs and apartments,” said Madelyn Wils, chair of Community Board 1.

“Basically we have had thousands of people who still haven’t cleaned their

apartments properly, when we know that there was asbestos and other materials among

the initial debris. Becausepeople haven’tgotten enough direction on how to deal

with this, they’ve gone around brushing off their canopies and sweepingtheir

roofs, putting this dust right back into the air, onto cars, and back into

people’sapartments through air filters. Even people who cleaned their

apartments or businesses are having to re-clean.”

Ms. Wils was among a group of local officials that commissioned

an independent gathering of dust samples from residential areas downtown. They

came up with some disturbing results. Testing inside three randomly selected

apartments, for example, revealed that carpets and curtains were inundated with

dust that was laden with copious amounts of asbestos and other unpleasant

materials. Because many residents and business owners have not hired

professional asbestos-abatement services to do their cleanup, it is not

unlikely that manyindoorsurfacesarestill contaminated.

Another independent study-this one commissioned by the board of

directors of a small park in Tribeca-found dangerously high levels of asbestos

coating the playground, prompting embarrassed government officials to close it

down after children had been playing there for days.

Fears Not Abated

According to Ms. Wils, residents are far from convinced that the

peril has passed. “People have gotten sick from this, getting headaches,” said

Ms. Wils. “We should be making a much greater effort to find out what this all

means.” The unease has only grown since the late December revelation that a

quarter of the 6,500 firefighters who did rescue work at ground zero have

fallen ill with  respiratory ailments.

Judging by the numbers, however, the results of the research that

has been made available to the public is largely encouraging. In the areas the

E.P.A. tested, for example, levels are consistently below governmentally

dictated danger levels of asbestos. And the more that time passes, the more

those levels are likely to diminish. An E.P.A. spokeswoman, Mary Helen

Cervantes, pointed out that the agency continues to test for a wide range of

pollutants in and around ground zero, and said that the E.P.A. has gone to

great lengths to put the public at ease about potential dangers. “A significant

piece of our involvement has been providing that information to the public,”

said Ms. Cervantes. “A lot of it is on the Web, and we also go to a lot of

tenant meetings to speak directly to them.”

However useful a broader collection of data might be, elected

officials and others say that they’ve had problems addressing the glut of

information already available, much of which is also in the public domain. Mr.

Nadler, Ms. Wils and other officials plan to assemble their own team of

researchers to pore over the data that has already been gathered, and to offer

an analysis independent of those offered by

government agencies.

In the meantime, Mr. Nadler

remains skeptical of the assurances offered to downtown residents. “People in

authority are always going to tell people that things are safe, and to move

back and not to worry about anything,” he said. “You can never say that

anything is perfectly safe. This is an unprecedented event and an unprecedented

tragedy, and it is  clear that there are

limitations to what science can tell us right now.”