Join 3,496 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Toxic Exposure Near Ground Zero
January 8, 2002 9:42 AM   Subscribe

Toxic Exposure Near Ground Zero EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said a week after the attacks: "I am glad to reassure the people of New York...that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink." Yet now: "Dust taken from an air vent in the apartment building's hallway contained 555 times the suggested acceptable level for asbestos.....Many of those who live or work downtown report strikingly similar symptoms: nosebleeds, sore throats, bronchial infections and an endless racking cough." How long do we need to wait until we see some full blown investigative reporting?
posted by Voyageman (29 comments total)

 
My 1st reaction: Duh. Like anyone thought the smoke rising from a burning structure is going to be made of pixie dust??

So what are you gonna do about it? Stop cleaning up? Declare downtown NYC a dead zone for a few thousand years? The sooner its cleaned up, the better. Offer the dedicated workers cleaning up hazard pay and a lot of gratitude for the brave and solemn work their doing and get to closure.

As for investigative reporting... this is an asinine suggestion. There was no coverup. They were just trying to prevent a panic among New Yorkers living/working nearby. How would Voyageman in all his hindsight wisdom have handled it??
posted by BentPenguin at 9:48 AM on January 8, 2002


<anecdotal and thus to be taken with a grain of salt>
I visited Ground Zero in November, and I can attest that the air there was absolutely foul. It was much worse than the "burnt rubber" smell I expected. It was "checmially", but also carried the unmistakable flavor of something...how to put it...biological. I'll never forget the smell.
</anecdotal and thus to be taken with a grain of salt>
posted by jpoulos at 9:52 AM on January 8, 2002


How would Voyageman in all his hindsight wisdom have handled it??

The air here is starting to stink too.
posted by jpoulos at 9:53 AM on January 8, 2002


As for those working nearby with nosebleeds, sore throats, bronchial infections and an endless racking cough, count your blessings...things could be so much worse.
posted by BentPenguin at 9:58 AM on January 8, 2002


So what are you gonna do about it?

Perhaps stop blowing sunshine up people's asses? Being forthright about possible health issues? I know! I'm a lunatic!

[From the article]: But the EPA also found more troubling results, and it did not release that data until after the nonprofit New York Environmental Law and Justice Project filed a Freedom of Information Act request. These tests found elevated levels of dioxin, PCBs, lead and chromium, all toxic substances, in the air, soil and water around the site.

And your second post, BentPenguin, of course has nothing at all to do with the issue at hand. But you knew that, didn't you?
posted by Skot at 10:04 AM on January 8, 2002


The Accident's Lessons
posted by Voyageman at 10:07 AM on January 8, 2002


More
posted by Voyageman at 10:09 AM on January 8, 2002


As for those working nearby with nosebleeds, sore throats, bronchial infections and an endless racking cough, count your blessings...things could be so much worse.

Right, and a slow, painful death due to (lung, stomach, etc.) cancer is real pleasant.
posted by panopticon at 10:09 AM on January 8, 2002


So as a City, and Nation, already freaked and floored by the attack, is coming to grips with the enormity of the situation, the EPA should have said "And by the way, the smoke thats rising from the ashes is Toxic. Have a nice Day".

Sure it all sucks. It was supposed to suck by design. We all needed the EPA to figure out the smoke was no good for folks?

The EPA only made calming statements in response to jittery questions the press started asking a week later, when they had run out of other anxiety-producing topics to fear-sell newspapers with.

So again I ask: you're Whitman, they're asking if its safe, and the public is already way freaked. What would you have said in her place, given the time, the mood and the enormity of the event?

Or to put it another way, you're at the movies, you smell smoke. Is shouting "FIRE!" the best course of action?
posted by BentPenguin at 10:21 AM on January 8, 2002


You're right, of course - ignorance of the exact danger you're in is much preferable to knowledge.
posted by solistrato at 10:29 AM on January 8, 2002


So again I ask: you're Whitman, they're asking if its safe, and the public is already way freaked. What would you have said in her place, given the time, the mood and the enormity of the event?

Wow, you're serious. Sorry, I really thought you were trolling.

If I were Whitman, the head of the EPA, I'd run some of my spiffy EPA-type tests, and give an informed report on the air and water. It would be my job to provide respected information. It would not be my job to tell folks what I think they'd like to hear, contrary to the facts.
posted by delapohl at 10:29 AM on January 8, 2002


If I were Whitman, I would make sure that a thorough cleanup got done quickly before people were allowed to move back into their apartments in the immediate area, before classes resumed and before people were to go back to work. I would have supplied quality air masks, filters, etc to anyone who wanted one. I would have erred on the side of caution instead of lying to the public.
posted by panopticon at 10:44 AM on January 8, 2002


Ideas? Face the calamity head-on, like all the other current initiatives, with confidence that the people will respond as admirably as they always do:
1. Immediately share actual test results with general public.
2. Declare and demarcate disaster zone, and evacuate perimeter except for essential personnel.
3. Allocate emergency federal, state and local funding.
4. Offer free medical check-ups and treatment
5. Offer government-aided housing and relocation.
6. Enlist private enterprise in job recreation and relocation.
posted by Voyageman at 10:47 AM on January 8, 2002


If I were Whitman, I would make sure that a thorough cleanup got done quickly before people were allowed to move back into their apartments in the immediate area, before classes resumed and before people were to go back to work. I would have supplied quality air masks, filters, etc to anyone who wanted one. I would have erred on the side of caution instead of lying to the public.

That is essentially what they did. The cleanup time was estimated at the time to be 2 years. It has since been reduced to 9 mos. It took more than 2 mos just to extinguish the underground fires. In light of this, do your suggestions seem practical or even feasible? Do you think airmasks would really remove the environmental pathogens? Have you ever tried wearing a gasmask for an hour or two? Imagine trying to get people (let alone New Yorkers) to wear a mask for the forseeable future. Again, how practical is this? Picture the NYSE trading floor, with traders screaming orders through masks.

Mayor Giuliani, since beatified for his comport during and after the attack, has gone on record that he had no idea what was next as he reassured eveyone that it was goi9ng to be OK. The magnitude of the disaster was such that there was nothing left to do but reassure the public, even though there was no underlying info to support the reassurances. This too is a fabrication. Shall we call in 60 minutes to investigate the Mayors disregard for reality as he cravenly sought the public's love?
==========

1. Immediately share actual test results with general public.

Results werenot available immediately. It was a disaster area.

2. Declare and demarcate disaster zone, and evacuate perimeter except for essential personnel.

You are talking about the financial center of the universe. The whole area was essential. Heard talk of the recession lately? Picture the economic fx of shutting down and relocating all of Wall Street. It would have put a huge chunk of the WORLD'S financial markets offline, indefinitely.

3. Allocate emergency federal, state and local funding.

You might recall they did that (and then the fed reneged the am't by half 6 weeks later). So imagine the relocation costs for all of Wall Street and lower manhattan for that matter.

4. Offer free medical check-ups and treatment

"Cough twice please. [cough cough] Yup, the toxic smoke is no good for you. NEXT..."

5. Offer government-aided housing and relocation.

For a couple of million people? Since you're being so practical, why not just manufactur a glass dome to drop over the rest of manhattan ?

6. Enlist private enterprise in job recreation and relocation.

Please get real... It was a disaster. Shit happens on any given day of the week. And yet, during a large scale disaster you demand the absolute truth, @whatever the cost? What a pile of worthlessly idealistic armchair clucking...
posted by BentPenguin at 11:32 AM on January 8, 2002


People who sleep near Ground Zero are probably waking up with a bad cough because they are sleeping in a dusty place.

Howabout a city-sponsored program to distribute energy-efficient HEPA room air filters to local residents at cost plus 10% markup?
posted by sheauga at 11:58 AM on January 8, 2002


You mean that bad-smelling, dusty, foul, rank air was bad to breathe? Well, duh! I could have told you that it was bad for us three months ago.... (I know there are MeFi threads in sept/oct that mention the foul state of the air in manhattan...)
posted by andrewraff at 12:45 PM on January 8, 2002


Please get real... It was a disaster. Shit happens on any given day of the week. And yet, during a large scale disaster you demand the absolute truth, @whatever the cost?

Wow, I've honestly lost track of what you're trying to say. Truly, no sarcasm intended here. Hit me with a clue bat.

Some quotes from the article:

I am glad to reassure the people of New York . . . that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink.
--Christine Todd Whitman, head of EPA, one week after the attacks

The good news for the residents of New York is that the air, while smoky, is not dangerous.
--An EPA spokeswoman, one week after the attacks

There was not a significant risk, even in the early days.
--Another EPA spokeswoman, two and a half weeks after the attacks


Your argument, as far as I've been able to tell, is, "Well, of course they're lying. Look how foul the air is. Everyone knows it's terrible for you. They're just trying to prevent panic." Is that an accurate recap?

If so, I just don't get it. I could almost understand if you were acting as apologist for a know-nothing politician trying to appease his constituents. But this is the friggin' EPA. They're supposed to... you know... do research, tell the truth, respectable stuff like that.
posted by delapohl at 1:38 PM on January 8, 2002


My argument was that people were already in a panic, with good reason. In a situation where there was plenty to worry about, raising environmental alarms was the last thing everyone needed. As the mayor stated recently, all that was left to do was to reassure people that things would *return* to normal and the city would go on.

Had the gov't stated the obvious, (that burning buildings release toxins into the air), it would likely have caused all sort of panic induced events to make matters much worse.

e.g. mass exodus, plummetting real estate values, and most significantly to the everyone not lucky enough to live in close proximity to Wall Street, a major shutdown and disruption of unknown length of the global finance markets, and ther esulting loss of faith in same.

For the truly cautious, all the facts were there to be strung together:

The WTC was built in the days when asbestos was a common building material. The fire continued to smolder for many weeks. It was burning the contents of the building, which anyone could safely assume included stuff that when burned, release toxins into the air.

Had Whitman spoken the truth, which was that there was a risk, not a guarrantee of harm from the smoke, I don't think it would have dissuaded the brave people working on remains of the WTC to stop and go home.

Calling for an investigation of this, is pure knee-jerk fear of the gov't. And for all its ills, anyone who thinks the gov't would be thinking to screw over the people in the middle of such a crisis, have internal issues of greater threat to them than some burning plastic.
posted by BentPenguin at 2:54 PM on January 8, 2002


Picture the NYSE trading floor, with traders screaming orders through masks.

In the paperback edition of the book Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused it written by Gina Kolata, there is a picture of a minor league baseball game played during the flu outbreak in 1918. The batter, catcher, umpire, and everyone visable in the stands are wearing surgical masks.
Americans may grumble, but they will do what must be done.
posted by Wildcat3 at 3:07 PM on January 8, 2002


Three questions must be answered today, with all the data made available (an investigation for lack of a better term)

1. Is it safe to live here - yes, no?
2. What is the medical explanation of the symptoms everyone has?
3. What is the likely long term health impact on children who live in the neighborhood, and is there any treatment ?

Did the government sit around and decide to tell or not tell? Who cares. Is there a seriuos health risk to my family ? I care.
posted by Voyageman at 3:10 PM on January 8, 2002


My argument was that people were already in a panic, with good reason. In a situation where there was plenty to worry about, raising environmental alarms was the last thing everyone needed. As the mayor stated recently, all that was left to do was to reassure people that things would *return* to normal and the city would go on.... [etc.]

Thanks BentPenguin. Here is my take.

The quotes from Whitman and her spokesfolks are not, "Wait until we conduct more thorough tests." Or, "Given time and cleanup, we assure you the air and water will be safe." Or even, "We simply can't comment at this time." Whitman & Co. said the air and water "is safe"; the air "is not dangerous"; there "was not a significant risk, even in the early days." These aren't sins of omission or reassurances of future normalcy I'm objecting to here. These are lies.

To revisit your earlier analogy, this is akin to me smelling smoke at the movies and announcing, "Don't worry, everything's smooth. Sit back and enjoy the show!" Some folks will wise up and take care to get the hell out of there. Others, well.... they might get a little messed up. Either way, my role would be at least as irresponsible as yelling "Fire." And there are plenty of alternatives in between the extremes.
posted by delapohl at 3:47 PM on January 8, 2002


i'd say you are bent, BentPenguin, but that would be withholding the ugly truth from the public. people like you are the reason why we have liars and theives running this country - you accept it.
posted by quonsar at 3:50 PM on January 8, 2002


4. Offer free medical check-ups and treatment

Free medical attention for everyone in Manhattan? Do you have any earthly idea what that will cost? Even if you don't figure in the "Oh by the way Doc as long as I'm here" stuff that adds up to a pretty penny. And what about the time involved? It could take months to get everyone "entitled" in to see someone more qualified than Radar O'Reilly. In short, who's going to pay for it and who's going to provide it?

"Cough twice please. [cough cough] Yup, the toxic smoke is no good for you. NEXT..."

Make that "Yup, you are all sick and theres nothing I can do about it! Next 10 please!"
posted by ilsa at 4:39 PM on January 8, 2002


No doubt we will soon get a Ari Fleischer press release claiming that asbestos inhalation is actually good for you.
posted by mark13 at 5:32 PM on January 8, 2002


To revisit your earlier analogy, this is akin to me smelling smoke at the movies and announcing, "Don't worry, everything's smooth. Sit back and enjoy the show!" Some folks will wise up and take care to get the hell out of there. Others, well.... they might get a little messed up. Either way, my role would be at least as irresponsible as yelling "Fire." And there are plenty of alternatives in between the extremes.

Delapohl: Its important to note that whitman's statements were made in response (as I say way above in this thread), to fear-bating questions on the front page of the NY Post. It wasn't the people working the wreckage. They all knew it wasn't healthy. And it's their noble sacrifice to work on. As for everyone else...Who in their right mind could think for a moment that it was safe?? And she made no assurances. She said they ran (some) tests, certainly nothing like an environmental impact study, and it wasn't awful.

The whole issue is a red herring. I think Whitman can defend her statement that the toxic emissions are tolerable (in the short term) while long term chronic exposure presents symptoms that are only showing up in people with constant daily exposure for 3 mos now.

The bottom line, is that the risk is there, and if voyagemen is concerned he should move, change jobs, whatever. If he wants assurances, there are none. Not now, and not 100 years ago.

I understand his concern, his frustration even. I live in NYC and it sux. BIGTIME (to put it vice-presidentially). But calling for an investigation is just looking for someone to scapegoat. The culpable party is half a planet away and as righteous as he ever was. There's no conspiracy here.
And while our mighty gov't is certainly worth a beatdown for its duplicity now and then, this here ain't the case.

There's lead in the air throughout the world. Theres organic chemicals, trace quantities of antibiotics, psychotropics and various other sundry pharmies in groundwater. There's dioxin in beef. We all know the list goes on and on.

There might never be another time in my life where everyone in this huge stew of a country was pointed in the same direction. That time was 9/11 till the shock wore off.
posted by BentPenguin at 5:41 PM on January 8, 2002


My dad the EPA guy, who has been closely involved with the WTC air quality testing (Edison NJ has been supplying a lot of people for New York), talked to me about this. Here is the rough paraphrase:

a) The air within the WTC perimeter is not safe, and never has been. All of the workers should have been wearing gas masks with dual-action chemical/dust filters from day one. However, this has been the source of much strife within EPA: chemical/dust filters are about twice as heavy and uncomfortable as filters that work on just chemicals or just dust. So, if they provided everyone with dual-action filters, most likely no one would wear them (as mentioned an above post, they're a bitch to fit, and worse to wear). So, the issue of "give everyone half-assed protection or be sure that no one will actually use the full-assed protection" has been in play, as always. Oh, and for the record, surgical masks are useless. Their benifit is purely psychological

b) The air outside of the perimeter is safe. Irritating as hell, but not toxic or carcinogenic in any meaningful or significant way. If you feel ill, and experience the symptoms listed above, it's not your imagination. But, it doesn't mean you're getting cancer either. The asbestos concentrations have been almost universally low. The reasons and exceptions are as follows:
i) The few high concentrations were in dust swabs taken just after 9/11. No air sampling has yeilded concerning asbestos levels.

ii) A surprisingly small amount of asbestos was actually used in the towers.

iii) There have been some conflicting measurement standards for asbestos that have increased the time required to get results. Basically, some organizations (cough, OSHA, cough) want to use old/cheap standards that are only capable of measuring asbestos particles too large to be harmful. EPA has the most accurate/stringent measurement policy (and hence the most expensive), and it took them a while to win the interagency battling to agree on a standard to use. Anyway, asbestos is not capable of causing the symptoms that most people are experiencing. Yes, the dust/smoke isn't wonderful for you. Yes, it isn't comfortable. No, it won't give you cancer. No, there is no real health risk (unless you are sensitive to inhaled irritants, in which case by all means, seek treatment).
c) EPA openly admits that even they, the experts, can not possibly claim to fully understand all of the complex interactions that occur in situations like this. And the situation could always change -- at one point there was a fear that CFCs stored in giant tanks underneath the WTC were going to be introduced to air at high temperatures, leading to the production of lethal phosgene gas (a potent chemcial weapon). However, this hasn't happend. And all complete and logcial analysis at this point say that, as far as anyone can reasonably tell, the situation is safe for residents of NYC.

If only the same could be said for those working within the perimeter (if any of you are working at the site, wear dual-action filters on your gas masks! And make sure they are properly fitted to begin with!).

The following has been an unpaid paraphrasing of Ptrin's dad. Contents may have settled during shipping. No refunds or exchanges. No CODs.
posted by Ptrin at 6:01 PM on January 8, 2002


thanks ptrin.

what a cynical bunch. the accusation that whitman *lied* were just too much. she knew the air was dangerous and she intentionally mislead people to believe it wasn't? give me a break. what would she possibly get out of that?

from some people's reactions, you'd think it was *completely implausible* that the EPA could do additional and/or more extensive testing and simply get different results this time around. I've gone to the doctor and gotten misdiagnosed only to be correctly diagnosed with something more obscure later. I never once, however, thought the doctor that did the original diagnosis was *lying* to me. Mistaken, perhaps, but intentionally misleading? never.

and they're not even *mistaken* in this case. the symptoms mentioned (nosebleeds, sore throats, bronchial infections and an endless racking cough) will generally occur when one is exposed to unusually large amounts of *any* kind of dust for long periods of time. it doesn't have to be toxic to do damage.
posted by lizs at 7:13 PM on January 8, 2002


I have a friend who lives a couple of blocks away from the WTC site, and his entire apartment was covered in a half-inch of grey dust. No one came to clean it out. He had to do it himself.
posted by panopticon at 9:58 PM on January 8, 2002


To Ptrin and Ptrin's Dad:Many thanks . This is what makes Mefi a great place.
posted by Voyageman at 5:30 AM on January 9, 2002


« Older A short Japanese action cartoon rendered entirely ...  |  Defecating figurines ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments