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RESPONSE TO TERROR

N.Y. Air's Purity a Matter of Dispute

Health: Many believe EPA was too quick to call it safe, and cite indoor pollutants.

January 18, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — As New Yorkers choked and gagged under a cloud of smoky dust after the World Trade Center attacks, the Environmental Protection Agency constantly assured them that the air did not pose a major health risk.

"EPA is greatly relieved to learn that there appears to be no significant levels of asbestos in the air in New York City," said Administrator Christie Whitman in a Sept. 13 message repeated many times.

But now, amid growing scientific evidence of high asbestos levels in homes and other potentially serious air quality problems related to the attacks, many New Yorkers believe the EPA misled them and was perhaps too eager to promote the return to business as usual in lower Manhattan.

"The assurances we got from the EPA came from ignorance, and we do not want to pay a terrible price in death and sickness down the road," Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) said Thursday, joining federal, state and local officials in a call for the EPA to clean up contaminants inside New York homes and businesses.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 7, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Safety group--A story in the A section Jan. 18 on air quality in New York City gave the wrong name for a workers' advocacy group. It is the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health.

"Federal officials have only tested the air outside," he added. "They couldn't possibly know if the city is really safe now."

It was the latest outburst in an escalating debate over New York's environmental health after Sept. 11. EPA officials deny they have overlooked health needs, and in a statement Thursday the agency said it has used "sound science" to chart the problem and "has undertaken an unprecedented response to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center."

Yet the criticism mounts.

Ever since the fires and smoke at the trade center site disappeared, there has been less concern over outdoor air quality and an increasing focus on indoor contaminants. The agency's independent ombudsman has called for a probe of Whitman's reassuring statements about air quality. And a senior EPA chemist has charged that asbestos levels in New York homes pose a health risk equal to that of Libby, Mont., a mining town so contaminated it has been declared a U.S. Superfund site.

Meanwhile, parents are rebelling against Board of Education orders to return their children in three weeks to public elementary schools near ground zero, saying they won't go back until they are convinced the air is safe.

An unprecedented study has been launched to test pregnant women who were exposed to the clouds of gas and smoke at the World Trade Center, and health testing has also begun for hundreds of day laborers who have been working at the site without adequate respiratory protection.

While there is no hard scientific evidence that New Yorkers are in danger from contamination, many observers say federal officials failed to properly communicate the level of medical risk to the city.

"All along, the EPA and other departments have been assuring people in New York City that things were fine, but things were not fine," said Dr. Stephen Levin, medical director of Mount Sinai Hospital's Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine. "There was a great desire to resume business as usual here, and I do mean business, because there's a great push to commercially redevelop the [World Trade Center] site."

Much of the controversy has focused on asbestos testing. When the World Trade Center towers collapsed, a large but still undetermined amount of asbestos used in the original building construction rained down on Manhattan. The site was only partially lined with the cancer-causing fireproofing material, because New York outlawed its use in 1971 while the buildings were under construction.

Many experts believe that the force of the airplane blast pulverized the asbestos into particles smaller than those normally identified by detection equipment. And while rigorous EPA tests suggest the outside air at the site is free of dangerous contamination, several private studies using more sophisticated technology have shown higher levels of asbestos and other contaminants in the smaller dust particles that blew into homes and offices near the World Trade Center.

The tests, by HP Environmental Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Chatfield Technical Consulting, a Canadian firm, could not determine whether those exposed to the minute particles would develop any potentially fatal diseases. Typically, individuals must be exposed to asbestos for long periods of time, and the disease may not appear for 20 years or more.

"We found conditions that EPA inspectors may not have suspected," said Hugh Granger, who directed the HP Environmental study. "And we don't want to alarm people, but this kind of information should be widely known."

Under EPA guidelines, 70 fibers of asbestos per square millimeter calls for decontamination procedures in schools. In the HP study, several indoor samples showed more than 300 fibers per square millimeter.

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