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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Downwind Ground Zero

Air Date: Week of

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Three months after the events of September 11th, the cleanup at the site of the World Trade Center continues. Fires are still burning, and as workers remove more of the rubble, they uncover chemicals and toxins that are released into the air. Government officials say that the air in lower Manhattan is safe to breathe. But people who live and work in the area are not so sure. Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports from New York.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's been three months since September 11th and the tricky task of cleaning up Ground Zero continues. Just a few days ago, part of the site had to be evacuated when workers accidentally punctured several dry cleaning containers uncovered in the rubble. The EPA feared a release of dangerous ammonia vapor, but the damage was contained. Over all, though, air quality in lower Manhattan has become something of a controversy. Government agencies say it's safe, but others who live and work in what's called "the breathing zone" remain unconvinced. Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports.

LAPSON: We're on Harrison Street, we're going toward West Street, and as you can hear the cranes creaking right now means we're getting close, and there in front of you, you see the World Trade Center, what's left of it.

CHU: Welcome to the clean-up of America's nightmare.

LAPSON: And whenever I'm home, this is what I see and hear.


Photo: Jim Estrin/The New York TimesPhoto: Jim Estrin/The New York Times

CHU: Diane Lapson lives with the remains of the World Trade Center. Her apartment is just a few hundred feet from where trucks and cranes dump the debris from Ground Zero onto barges headed for a landfill on Staten Island. It's a 24/7 operation and on this warm autumn night, streetlights illuminate a steady arc of water, as a worker with a fire hose sprays an incoming truck.


LAPSON: They're wetting down the debris as it's being loaded. The reason they're wetting it down is because there's a lot of dust on the debris. The debris is spewing everything all over the neighborhood. And, it's not just our neighborhood. The wind carries this across Manhattan.

WOMAN: One thing you turn left, one little thing you turn right, and another one, that stuff carried with him. I have a healthy child, so I think that something's wrong with your information.


CHU: A block south of the barge staging area, a few hundred parents pack the auditorium at Stuyvesant High School. They sit patiently, as health experts and public officials try to answer their questions about air quality at the school. Stuyvesant was recently reopened and declared safe for its 3,000 students. The school was thoroughly cleaned, and the air is still monitored for toxins. But, some students complain of headaches; others have nagging coughs and colds. And parents want to know if the air here is making their kids sick.

WOMAN: And doctor said the most problem is the pollution caused her so much trouble. She got nose bleeding and she breathes very hard, and the whole night coughing, cannot sleep. And I want to ask, should I take my daughter back or not?

CHU: These parents face a tough choice. Stuyvesant is one of the city's most prestigious public schools. Taking their kids out now might risk their chances of getting into a good college. Keeping them in Stuyvesant may risk their health.

WOMAN: Now I want to ask the school about how are you going to do it? I should bring my daughter come back or not? I don't know how can I do.

CHU: Three months after the tragedy of September 11th, people who live and work near the site of the World Trade Center are reestablishing their daily routines. But many of them wonder about the acrid smell and the fumes from the fires that still burn at Ground Zero, and about the dust that seems to coat everything. And some folks are warning them that there's good reason to be concerned about what's in the air.

KUPFERMAN: You have a little sulphur dioxide, a little PCBs, you have a lot of particulates that are quite high, you have dioxins that are several times cautionary levels.

CHU: Joel Kupferman heads the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project. His office is a few blocks away from Ground Zero. And he says that when EPA officials were slow to release the results of their air testing in lower Manhattan, he filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get the data. Documents reveal toxins including benzene, dioxins and PCBs in the air, asbestos, lead and fiberglass in the dust. And the pollution isn't expected to go away any time soon. Officials say the fires could go on for months, and the clean-up well into the next year.

KUPFERMAN: Watch your step, here comes the fire truck.

CURWOOD: Outside a fire house on Duane Street, Kupferman shows me one way that dust from Ground Zero is spread beyond the clean-up site.

KUPFERMAN: On some of these trucks there's dust right on the back of the trucks that go back and forth to the site, and if I just take my credit card--I hope this doesn't ruin my credit--you can actually hear it being scraped off the back of...


KUPFERMAN: ...the fibrous material. So the people who live around here are concerned that a lot of this is just being carried back and forth, back into their neighborhood.

CHU: So, Kupferman scrambles around the neighborhood, too. His backpack and pockets are crammed with summaries of the data he's collected. He shares it with crews from the site, office workers, and neighborhood groups. He says he's out to counter the impression, put forth by government officials, that lower Manhattan is back to normal.

KUPFERMAN: It just seems that they draw this imaginary line around the site and basically tell the molecules that you can't pass that line.

CHU: EPA officials say the toxins on Joel Kupferman's list do exist in and around lower Manhattan, but not at the levels he claims. They say his interpretation of the data is flawed, because it's based on spikes measured in the very center of Ground Zero.

NORRELL: We take samples directly in the plume as it exits the debris. But we see some fairly high levels of some materials.

CHU: Neil Norrell is in charge of collection air samples at the EPA's nineteen monitoring stations throughout lower Manhattan.

NORRELL: But once we move away from that exit area out into where the folks are working, out into the breathing zone, we take samples there also, and the numbers drop off, sometimes to below levels that we can even detect with our instruments.

CHU: In short, the EPA says wind disperses the toxins. Also, wash stations, set up in the past few weeks to hose down workers and vehicles, have dramatically cut down the amount of dust leaving the site. When asked if she's concerned about the air, working so close to Ground Zero, EPA spokeswoman Nina Habib says "no," even though she's five months pregnant with her first child.

HABIB: Certainly, the thought crosses your mind, but just being able to see the data really has allayed any fears that I might have had. And I'm at work five days a week, ten hours a day.

CHU: Most of the EPA's data is on its Web site, but not everyone has seen it, and some who have say it's hard to understand. And, maybe it's just the smell--the ominous and omnipresent odor that pervades ground zero--that fuels people's doubts about the air. As spokeswoman Mary Mears leads us away from the site, her blue EPA windbreaker attracts a New York City cop.

COP: Now all this stuff that is pulverized, that is in the air, how bad is that?

MEARS: Well, we're testing for the very fine particles as well, and, while there are certainly particles in the air, we're not--it's not exceeding federal standards, believe it or not.

COP: So, for the most part what we're smelling here, a couple of blocks away, is not--

MEARS: Believe it or not, as much as this smells, and I absolutely agree with you, it stinks, the samples that we're taking from this area are coming back fine.

COP: We go home some nights, and our throats are shot.

MEARS: Sure. Absolutely, just because there's not toxics in the air doesn't mean that you're not going to have health effects. I mean, the dust itself, I know I get sinus headaches being in this area. Once those fires are out, I think we'll be golden. Until then, we're going to have this smell, unfortunately.

COP: Just curious, I appreciate your time.

MEARS: No problem.

COP: Thanks.

MEARS: Take it easy.

COP: Thanks.

CHU: As many as ten city, state and federal agencies are involved in the clean-up, testing and monitoring operations at Ground Zero. But, outside the fenced-off perimeter, people who own their own businesses and homes must pay for those services themselves. One of those people is Niek Veraart.

VERAART: I think we'll be throwing out the couch that we have, because it's fabric. We have a carpet, we have bedding that we'll definitely get rid of.

CHU: Niek Veraart lives on the fourth floor of a high-rise in Battery Park City. His bedroom has a view of New York harbor so picture perfect he could use the Statue of Liberty as a night light. Many of Veraart's neighbors have moved back into their apartments, but Niek isn't sure he can bring his family back here. Both his children have asthma, and he worries that the smoke and the dust from Ground Zero will aggravate the condition.

VERAART: You know, there's been very sort of contradicting reports about the air quality. And I think if I were like a single person in my 20s or something like that, I'd probably move here. But with a family and young kids, it's a very different story.

CHU: So Veraart has hired John Peciulli, of North Atlantic Laboratories, one of many independent companies scouring the buildings of lower Manhattan for trace toxins. In some locations, Peciulli's found elevated levels of asbestos, fiberglass and lead. Today he's testing the air and dust in Veraart's apartment.

PECIULLI: So then, based on what you're telling me, I'll end up collecting two micro-vac samples, one from the back of this couch, here, and one also from the bedding in the child's room closest to the window.

VERAART: And in our bedroom.

CHU: John starts up the vacuum that will capture any asbestos in the air. Then he moves to the bedroom, to collect samples of the dust off the windowsill.

PECIULLI: There's a ton of fiberglass in there, you can actually see it. Lots of cellulose, which is what we expect to find.

CHU: Nothing to worry about?

PECIULLI: It's classified as a nuisance dust, in California. Other than that, it's non-regulated. There's a big debate as to whether or not it's carcinogenic. There's no epidemiologic evidence whatsoever on longevity and exposure to fiberglass. So some people err on the side of caution.

CHU: As we head over to test the kids' room, Veraart makes a discovery: it's the family pet that was left behind on September 11th.

VERAART: This is amazing. This tank looks like a disaster, but the fish is, she's unbelievable.

PECIULLI: That's a New York fish.

VERAART: That's a New York fish. Keeps on going. No pump running, no light--just keeps on going.

CHU: Ultimately, the tests on Niek Veraart's apartment show no harmful levels of toxins in the air or in the dust. But, despite the clean bill of health, he decided not to bring his family back to Battery Park City. He says it's just too close to ground zero for him to feel good about what his asthmatic kids would be breathing. And, according to doctors studying air quality in lower Manhattan, that's a wise decision.

LEVIN: You know, there's a certain amount of fine pulverized dust that continues to be in the air and settle on surfaces in the building, and, when these materials are present, they can be re-suspended in the air and people will react to them, variously, from person to person, but some people will react.

CHU: Dr. Steven Levin heads the Mt. Sinai Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine. In the first days after September 11th, he mostly treated people exposed to the initial cloud of dust after the collapse of the towers, people with a short exposure to high levels of dust and debris.

LEVIN: What we're seeing now, and this is a source of some concern to us and I can't say we really expected this among office workers. So, we have new onset sinusitis, we have new onset upper airway problems, and, in fact, new onset asthma, among people whose only exposure comes by virtue of the fact that they're occupying office space two, three blocks mostly downwind.

CHU: Levin says the main health concern should be the fine particles that are causing new asthma cases, not the benzene dioxin or asbestos. And, while there's a good deal of environmental monitoring going on, Levin says much of it is limited in scope, and too close to Ground Zero. He says residences and office buildings need monitoring too, and the data clearly communicated and explained to the public. So far, he says that's not been happening.

LEVIN: And it allowed people to do one of two things, unfortunately--either trivialize the exposure circumstances and reassure people when there really wasn't basis to give reassurance, or to exaggerate the risks, so that some people found themselves in a real quandary--can I go back to work? So people were left with some unnecessary uncertainty.

DELIETO: I know we've been told by various sources that things are okay, but none of us believe that.

CHU: Stacey Delieto lives in TriBeCa, on the edge of Ground Zero, and, like a number of her neighbors in lower Manhattan, she's frustrated. She says there are inconsistencies in the information public officials are giving her about the safety of the air she breathes. She also wonders what they're not telling her.

DELIETO: Bad enough we all had to experience this tragedy, and I myself was an eyewitness as many people were, and it's a constant. I think when the wind blows and you smell that smell, it's just really upsetting.

CHU: There it is again--another mention of that Ground Zero smell, the smell that people who live near the site can't seem to escape, the smell Stacey says is the reason air purifiers, hepa filters and humidifiers fill her apartment now. Some folks might think she's overreacting, and Stacey herself admits the machines are a nuisance. But they provide some measure of comfort, in a world that now sometimes seems out of her control.

DELIETO: Periodically, I'll open my window and I'll let some air in. I don't even want to say fresh air, because it's never fresh. But if it seems like the wind is blowing in a different direction, I might open my window for a few hours. And then all of a sudden I will smell that infamous smell, and I know, oops, got to close the windows. And my eyes start burning, and my chest starts burning. This is what we go through, what I go through, all the time.

CHU: In response to conflicting data and citizens' concerns, some city and state officials are calling on Mayor Rudolph Guiliani to create a single agency to oversee air quality in lower Manhattan. The agency would establish standards of clean-up for apartment buildings, and extend air monitoring to include residential areas downwind of Ground Zero, including Chinatown, Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. Right now, the Mayor says, there's no need for these additional measures. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Chu, in New York.



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