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A Toxic Legacy Lingers as Cleanup Efforts Fall Short

Health: High levels of pollutants remain in buildings near the trade center site.


NEW YORK — Almost a year after the World Trade Center's collapse shrouded New York in inches of ash and debris, residents are still finding dust containing surprisingly high levels of asbestos, lead and mercury in their homes, offices and schools.

A toxic cocktail containing many times the legal maximum levels of cancer-causing agents lingers everywhere. It is embedded in school carpets, settled in office air vents and stuck in the crevices of firetrucks--even after extensive cleanups.

Under pressure from activists, local politicians and even its own scientists, the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to clean every residence in Lower Manhattan, although top officials continue to insist that health risks are small.

The unprecedented cleanup is a grand gesture that still falls short, say such critics as Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who accuses the EPA of downplaying the risk in the early days after the attacks to avoid a costly and politically unwelcome abatement. The planned cleanup won't include small businesses, firehouses or the residences of hundreds of thousands of people in Brooklyn who were directly in the path of the toxic plume. It covers only the random apartment dwellers who specifically request it, leaving them open to recontamination by units that have not been cleaned or common areas that share a ventilation system.

"It's a major health catastrophe," Nadler said. "We're allowing it to happen, and it's immoral because people are going to die from this."

Beginning this month, each of the 30,000 residences below Canal Street is eligible to have a team wipe down every surface in the home, wet-vacuum the rugs and upholstery and check the vent outlets for asbestos. So far, 3,205 people have applied for a full cleanup and 905 for testing only. The abatement could cost up to $7,000 per apartment, according to the EPA.

"We know that the dust from the World Trade Center can contain asbestos and silica and fibrous materials," said EPA spokeswoman Mary Mears.

"Science says that you need fairly high levels and long-term exposure, but we still think there's a potential risk there. But we feel that what we're going to find here is very low levels, and that there would be a very low risk, even if we did nothing."

Nina Lavin, a jeweler, is one of those convinced she's living in a poisoned building and is angry that the EPA didn't do more to warn people of the hazards. Her apartment, seven blocks north of the World Trade Center site, faced the towers, and her belongings were coated with dust after the buildings fell.

Reassured by EPA chief Christie Whitman's claims two days after the disaster that "there appears to be no significant levels of asbestos in the air in New York City," Lavin followed the New York Department of Health's recommendations to clean up with a mere wet mop and rags. Trusting the agency, she said, turned out to be a mistake.

Relocation Plea Rejected

Months later, Lavin couldn't stop coughing and developed chronic bronchitis, she said. The building manager refused to pay for a professional cleanup. The Federal Emergency Management Agency turned down her request to be relocated, insisting that her building was "structurally sound." Certain that there was still something wrong, she paid to have her apartment tested, and she found that it contained 12 times the maximum legal level of asbestos.

Lavin is now living in a hotel until her apartment is thoroughly cleaned. But even then, she risks recontamination from other tenants who share the air system in the 460-unit building but who haven't signed up for the scrub-down.

"It's really distressing to learn that I've been living with these contamination levels for all these months," Lavin said. "I have no idea what the long-term prognosis is for me or for all of us."

Scientists aren't sure either. Experts differ on what the long-term health effects might be, because no one has ever studied such a broad combination of contaminants dispersed on such a wide scale before.

The immediate effects are clear. The characteristic "World Trade Center cough"--which Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has documented in hundreds of rescue and construction workers--is caused by corrosive concrete dust, ground glass and other lung irritants.

But Landrigan is also worried about effects that will only show up years later. Asbestos has microscopic, needle-like fibers that can lodge in the lungs and cause scarring and eventually tumors. It is hazardous only when inhaled, Landrigan said, but lingering dust can be circulated by a contaminated air system, stirred up by moving furniture, or raised by children running through the house.

"We try to be cautiously reassuring," Landrigan said. "It's fair to say that if someone has been exposed to asbestos indoors for a year, that they have an increased risk of developing cancer."

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