Asbestos Spectre Haunts Manhattan
A year after the Twin Towers were attacked, government agencies have only begun to deal with contamination of domestic properties in lower Manhattan. The continued denial of asbestos health risks after September 11 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New York State and City bodies, including the New York City Health Department, was contradicted by doctors, scientists and civil servants whose theories were supported by independently gathered data (see: Asbestos Fallout from September 11). Tests carried out in November and December, 2001 of 59 apartments in lower Manhattan, found elevated asbestos levels in 20 per cent of the buildings. Despite the widespread knowledge about the hazards of asbestos and the warranted anxiety over indoor contamination levels, nothing was done for over eight months.
In January, 2002, Dr Cate Jenkins, an outspoken EPA scientist, categorized independently gathered data taken near Ground Zero as "alarming." Placing these readings in context, she pointed out that the N.Y. levels were 22 times higher than those in Libby, Montana, a town which has become synonymous with asbestos disease. Despite an all too obvious reluctance to address the problems in Libby, the Federal Government finally got involved after a medical screening program detected lung abnormalities in 18% of the adults examined (see: Libby, Montana – Results of Medical Screening Program ). Before Libby was deemed habitable, the Government replaced furniture, draperies and carpeting in every home. Comparing EPA action in Libby with the lack of action in NY does not look good. Why did the EPA stall? Hugh Kaufman, formerly of the EPA’s ombudsman’s office, says: "All the experienced people in the agency knew immediately it was a disaster and would need massive remediation… But decisions on how to approach it were made from the White House down, rather than from the scientists on the ground up. The message was to get downtown up and running as soon as possible and worry about the rest later."
Succumbing to public pressure, the EPA changed tack in May, 2002 when a special hotline was set up to assist residents have their homes tested and cleaned. This action was criticized by Joel Shufro of the NYCOSH1: "It’s a shame these measures were not taken at a time when they could have prevented the heavy exposure to the toxic dust that covered lower Manhattan." Unfortunately, Manhattan residents are not the only ones at risk from domestic exposure to asbestos. Robin Howie, an occupational hygienist, is concerned about the asbestos levels in the homes of Ground Zero recovery staff who unknowingly took fibers home on their clothing. Once indoors, this "contamination could have become airborne and inhaled by family members… Everyone who was in Manhattan on September 11th should thoroughly decontaminate their homes… Anyone exposed to asbestos should stop smoking immediately to reduce their lung cancer risk."2
During June, 2002 sampling of contamination levels at 110 Liberty Street, a still-unoccupied building close to the WTC, began; cleaning procedures tested at this site are being assessed. In mid-August, the EPA released plans for the voluntary testing of airborne asbestos in residences below Canal, Allen and Pike Streets. As of August 16, nearly 4,000 applications had been received by the EPA’s Lower Manhattan Dust Cleanup Program. Another one hundred homes in designated areas have been selected for monitoring by the EPA which believes that "this action-oriented cleanup and testing program will reduce risk of possible long-term exposure and related health effects."3 Residents had been given until September 3, 2002 to contact the EPA’s Dust Cleanup Hotline4 for assistance; a 30 days extension has been granted.
Although the EPA’s belated decision to address indoor asbestos contamination is something, it is, critics say, too little, too late. According to William Henning, Chairperson of the NYCOSH: "The limitations that the EPA has chosen are completely inexplicable… World Trade Center contamination is a public health problem and the EPA is treating it like a public relations problem. By what logic can they agree to clean up a residence but not a workplace in the same mixed-use building? Do they think that the dust cloud and smoke that filled lower Manhattan for four months only contaminated residences? They ought to clean up all Trade Center contamination wherever it exists, and they ought to do it in accordance with the EPA’s own regulations in the federal National Contingency Plan, which call for a cleanup that is much more thorough than the one the EPA now plans." Congressman Jerrold Nadler agrees: "It’s a major health catastrophe. We’re allowing it to happen, and it’s immoral because people are going to die from this." He believes the EPA’s plans are tragically flawed ignoring, as they do, small businesses, firehouses and thousands of residences in Brooklyn which were hit by the toxic plume. Dr. Cate Jenkins says the Agency’s new cleanup plan "is grossly inadequate," using discredited techniques and inferior equipment. Although 30,000 Manhattan apartments qualify for the $7,000 EPA clean-up, the decontamination program is voluntary. The effectiveness of cleaning up selected units while others remain polluted will be compromised by the circulation of air and dust through common air vents and systems.
Previous initiatives for cleaning up domestic contamination have been unsuccessful. Lucy Komisar, a journalist whose windows faced the WTC, criticized a federal-state program to assist New Yorkers in an article entitled: Helps out there, but who knew? She revealed that officials from the New York State Labor Department had not advertised the availability of subsidies for purchasing decontamination equipment such as HEPA5 vacuum cleaners, HEPA air purifiers and filters. The Individual and Family Grant Helpline6 is understaffed and information about application procedures to the Federal Emergency Management Agency7 is hard to track down. Komisar reports that only 31,000 (1%) of the 3 million Manhattan households eligible for up to $1,600 of assistance have applied. Three quarters of the funding for this project comes from the $21.5 billion federal 9/11 disaster aid package; the balance is from the State of New York.
Before September 11, students and staff at Stuyvesant High School revelled in the location of this prestigious school, only four blocks from the World Trade Center. Although the New York City Board of Education maintained the school was safe for use last October, asbestos levels 250 times the legal limit were found in the auditorium’s carpeting in August. Shortly afterwards, a visitor to the school observed unprotected workers releasing more asbestos dust during clean-up operations on the ventilation system. During August, asbestos contamination was reported in other schools, building air shafts, and in several fire trucks. Throwing huge sums of money is not the answer. The incomplete clean-up of Stuveysant High School cost $1.7 million. This Summer, the World Street Journal moved back to completely refurbished offices in the World Financial Center. During an extensive cleanup, the walls had been stripped bare and resurfaced, furniture and carpeting had been replaced, air vents cleaned. Even after three independently conducted surveys gave the premises the all clear, a small amount of asbestos was found in the ventilation system. The most sophisticated equipment, high levels of expertise and coordinated action are essential if New Yorkers are to feel confident that everything possible is being done to protect their health.8 In light of all they have been through, they should expect no less.
September 11, 2002
1 NYCOSH: New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health; website: http://www.nycosh.org
2 An email from Robin Howie received on September 4, 2002, headed: Asbestos-induced disease risk from 9/11 explained his calculations:
"The two main likely health risks from asbestos release following the collapse of the WTC towers are mesothelioma and lung cancer.
The mesothelioma risk from a given exposure to asbestos increases as the time since exposure to the power 4, from Doll and Peto (1985). The consequence of this relationship can be seen in the context of the risk of developing mesothelioma by age 80 for a 55 year old grandmother, a 25 year old mother and a 5 year old child. Fibres in the bodies of these three people have 25, 55 and 75 years respectively to cause disease. Assuming equal exposures to asbestos and taking the relative risk of the grandmother developing mesothelioma as 1, the risk to the mother is (55/22)^4 = 23 times higher than for the grandmother and the risk for the daughter is (75/25)^4 = 81 times higher. That is, the risk is dramatically greater for young people. Any children exposed to asbestos contamination carried home on the bodies of their parents may thus be at greater risk of developing mesothelioma than their parents simply because the fibres will generally have longer in the body to cause disease. Once the fibres are in the body there is currently nothing that can be done to reduce the mesothelioma risk.
The lung cancer risk for smokers exposed to asbestos is about 15 times higher than similarly exposed non-smokers. Smokers' risks of developing lung cancer can therefore be reduced if they give up smoking or reduce the amount they smoke.
The lung cancer risk for those exposed to asbestos on 9/11 can therefore be reduced if an individually targeted smoking cessation programme is set up for those likely to have been exposed to asbestos.
The main type of asbestos released into New York was chrysotile. It can therefore be assumed that there will be about 30 times more cases of asbestos-induced lung cancer than mesothelioma. The critical importance of initiating the above smoking cessation programme is therefore evident.
Doll R and Peto J (1985) Asbestos - The effects on health of exposure to asbestos. HMSO: London"
4 EPA Dust Cleanup Toll-free Hotline: 1-877-796-5471 (TTY:1-800-396-1018).
5 HEPA: High efficiency particle arresting.
6 Family Grant Helpline: 866 346 0348.
7 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): (800) 462 9029 or website: www.fema.gov
8 Dr Philip Landrigan, Chair of the Department of Community and Preventative Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, is clear: "It's fair to say that if someone has been exposed to asbestos indoors for a year, then they have an increased risk of developing cancer."