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Is Ground Zero toxic?

BY HEATHER MOYER | NEW YORK | January 13, 2002

"Our main concern is the toxins in this dust."

—Roger Cook

Asthma attacks, headaches, nosebleeds, sore throats, hacking coughs, bronchial infections, rashes. People who live near ground zero are taking these symptoms to their doctors, and for workers still clearing rubble, it's even more serious. Firefighters call it the "World Trade Center cough," and four Port Authority police officers were reassigned from the site after they tested positive for elevated mercury levels in their blood.

Is Ground Zero toxic? And what's being done about it?

Not enough, said Roger Cook, executive director of the Western New York council on occupational safety and health. "We could be setting ourselves up for something disastrous here," he said. "Our main concern is the toxins in this dust, it was a big mixture of chemicals and we still have no idea what all people are being exposed to."

At least some tests indicated a toxic cocktail that's a combination of asbestos, fiberglass, dioxin, PCBs, lead, and chromium.

More should be done to monitor both the public and workers, said Cook, adding that people are worried about the long-term effects of breathing this dust, said Cook.

Many fear that the neighborhood will be a future "cancer cluster."

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state's department of environmental protection are monitoring and testing daily air quality throughout lower Manhattan.

Both agencies' Web sites list test results. The public can also view maps of where tests are taken.

The New York City department of public health has been testing air quality at nearby schools.

All three agencies' test results say that toxin rates, including those on the cancer-causing substance asbestos, have rarely peaked above the limit for public safety.

"The tests for asbestos were high (immediately following 9/11), but the rates have gone down (below the unsafe level)," said Jessica Leighton, New York City's assistant commissioner on environmental risk and communication. "We are seeing a decline on our monitoring maps of harmful particulates in the air."

People need to realize the difference between risks to those actually working in ground zero and those who work or live in the area, added Leighton. "We need to separate workers and residents here," she said. "Obviously workers (in ground zero) have different hazards, but they are also equipped with protection like masks and such."

If the professional cleaning crews have access to such protection, what about those simply trying to clean their homes and businesses?

In this respect, government agencies aren't doing enough, said Joel Shufro, executive director of the nonprofit New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. "The New York City department of health is just saying 'professional cleaning is recommended, but you can do it yourself.' "

Shufro wondered why this is when other, smaller-scale disasters in the past have sparked better response. "Some ten years ago in Gramercy Park we had a huge event where a ventilation shaft exploded and sent a cloud of asbestos up all over the area," he said. "When that happened, the city came in, evacuated everyone, sealed off the area, and cleaned it all up. It was declared a public health emergency by the Department of Health."

Cook shared Shufro's concerns. "We have church groups going around helping clean up these other local buildings, but they have no training," he said. "Now they're having health problems, too. Not enough precautions are being taken."

But Leighton defended the city's approach, citing a highly visible public education campaign about how to properly clean one's residence, and what to do if a landlord doesn't adequately clean up. "The department of health sent out flyers to all the local landlords telling them 'before you reopen your building, you must do this to make it safe,' " she said. "If any residents have problems with their landlords not doing this, we immediately move in to investigate."

Cook and Shufro added that there should be more health screening of the public and workers alike. "We've been referring many of the rescue workers to Sinai Hospital for further testing," said Cook. "But no one in any government agency is saying that there is any need for further testing of those who've had the highest exposure. We say that if we start early looking for possible long-term effects, we might be able to avoid any long-term effects."

Among fears expressed by workers and residents are that they will be part of a "cancer cluster" or experience high rates of leukemia in the future.

Shufro said they've been working with Sinai Hospital's Dr. Stephen Levin, director of the hospital's Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine. "He's agreeing with us that there may be long-term effects for these workers and others exposed to this dust," said Shufro.

In the meantime, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health is opening up a new medical van Monday at ground zero to provide health screenings for day laborers. "We're also doing an education campaign about proper cleaning methods for local residents. We're offering industrial hygiene programs to come in for testing if people request it," Shufro said.

Shufro and Cook say they're also working on keeping the pressure on the government agencies. "Many groups are starting to raise these issues too," said Shufro. "We haven't had any huge success yet, but I think there's a growing recognition that these (cleanup and exposure) standards are not appropriate and are not right for people's health.

We're continuing our dialogue with regulatory agencies as well, and we know the greater the pressure, the greater chance they'll respond."

Recently, Cook and Shufro met with Dr. Levin and with United Church of Christ representatives Florence Coppola and Joann Hale to start formulating an action plan. "We're working on where to start. This is such a massive project," said Hale.

Leighton said the city is planning on expanding its outreach efforts as well. "We're sending out education teams and we have a speakers' bureau with a number of local experts," she said. "The amount of work going into this -- from the endless extensive testing to all the education efforts -- it's impressive how much is being done."

The city continues to work with the EPA and the state department of environmental protection on air testing to see long-term effects, if any. "We're putting all these tests together to set up a long-term analysis, and the EPA is setting up long-term trend analysis on the test results as well," said Leighton. "This is going to take time because it's so much information.

"But we want people to know that we're trying to get the information out there and we're not trying to hide anything. We're here to protect public health."

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