When Jim Shay returned to his apartment two blocks from the World Trade Center, just a week after the September 11 terrorist attacks, his landlord told him the air was hazard-free. That day, Shay had to sweep up a layer of dust that had covered his patio and blown into his apartment. "I was a little concerned," he says, "though there was a sign up in the lobby saying that the air had been tested and everything was fine." On September 18, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman assured New Yorkers that Manhattan's air was "safe to breathe," and by October 5, more than 12,000 of the 20,000 displaced residents who lived around Ground Zero had moved back into their homes. Yet newly released information reveals that official assurances were misguided. A University of California-Davis research team has called September 11 the "single largest air pollution episode in U.S. history," and weeks after the attack, the area's air remained full of very fine particles of heavy metals, silicon, and asbestos.
Eric A. Goldstein, director of NRDC's New York Urban Program, is determined to find out why residents and workers weren't told earlier about potential health risks. "The all-clear sign was sent out too soon," he says. "The city and the government did a lot right, but they overemphasized the good news and de-emphasized the health risks in the area."
The collapse of the World Trade Center towers led to the release of as much as 300 to 400 tons of asbestos from the north tower and the destruction of two electrical substations underneath World Trade Center 7 that contained 130,000 gallons of transformer oil contaminated with PCBs. In fine-particle samples taken near the site in October, the UC-Davis team found lead, sulfuric acid, and silicon; some levels of these metals were the highest ever recorded in air in the United States.
Goldstein, along with NRDC's Megan Nordgrén and Mark Izeman, has worked nonstop since soon after September 11 to gather information from city, state, federal, and independent sources on the attacks' environmental impacts. The resulting report finds, among other things, that residents like Shay were "largely left to fend for themselves when it came to confronting questions on debris cleanup and short-term health symptoms." And while air quality approaches or is similar to pre-September 11 levels, many residences and offices still have not been properly cleaned.
Goldstein recently testified at a Senate subcommittee hearing called by Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), which focused on why local residents and workers weren't informed that Ground Zero air was still contaminated weeks and months after the attacks. At least 10,000 New Yorkers have already suffered short-term respiratory and other pollution-related impacts from the Trade Center's collapse and subsequent fires. Among them is Madelyn Wils, chair of the local community board, who began having frequent asthma attacks for the first time in ten years.
NRDC's recommendations include the professional cleaning of still-contaminated buildings and monitoring the long-term health of all residents in the affected area. NRDC also wants to see Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council create a board of physicians and environmental scientists that would work with government agencies to communicate information to the public quickly during future environmental disasters. That would be good news for Wils, a member of a task force that's been asking for further testing and monitoring since the first days after the attacks. And also for Shay. "Right now," he says, "I probably wouldn't know who to talk to if I started having trouble breathing." Goldstein isn't surprised: "One of the major lessons we have to learn from the September 11 tragedy is how the government has to better respond and communicate -- which is essential to protecting people's health."
-- Rachel Neumann