Panel confronts post-9/11 health issues

February 27, 2005

Health issues plague Ground Zero workers

In an ongoing effort to assist persons impacted by events of September 11, 2001, the United Church of Christ continues to work in partnership with the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (see NYCOSH web site for articles on work with the communities involved: nycosh.org/index_environment_wtc.html. Through the generosity of UCC members and friends we have been able to continue to support this work. In the year 2005 the UCC sent $100,000 to NYCOSH; another $100,000 is committed to this work for the year 2006. Below is an update on communities impacted.

Contaminant testing in Brooklyn has not been ruled out by the panel of experts chosen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review the cleaning methods after Sept. 11. The committee, called the EPA World Trade Center Expert Technical Review Panel, met Wednesday to review numerous public comments made regarding its draft sampling proposal. The proposal aims to retest numerous buildings in Manhattan for signs of remaining toxic dust from the World Trade Center. Many comments made during the meeting called for the proposed testing area to include Chinatown and Brooklyn.

Commenters, including the World Trade Center Community and Labor Coalition (WTCCLC), noted that Brooklyn should be included in any re-testing due to satellite photos showing the Ground Zero smoke plume traveling over that area. The coalition also noted that wherever health issues are appearing due to dust, there also should testing happen.

"I think when there are health outcomes related to the World Trade Center, then it should be considered (for testing)," said Dr. David Carpenter, a member of WTCCLC's expert advisory panel assigned with reviewing the EPA panel's draft sampling plan. "There are definitely health concerns coming forward in Brooklyn. Health outcomes are the ultimate concern." Since Sept. 11, thousands of Ground Zero workers and city residents have come forward with a number of health issues - including respiratory ailments - due to the toxic cloud of dust released when the towers collapsed and also due to the smoldering fires at Ground Zero. Those fires lasted over three months.

The EPA's technical review panel, made up of experts the EPA selected from various fields, held its first meeting last spring. The initial aim was to review the EPA's post-Sept. 11 dust cleaning policy, as well as identifying other areas the health registry could be enhanced to allow better for tracking of post-exposure risks by workers and residents.

The aim shifted once the panel and the public both heard calls for and added calls of their own for further contaminant testing around the city. Wednesday's meeting was the first since the panel's draft sampling proposal was made public in October.

During the discussion between Carpenter and the EPA panel, panelists agreed that Brooklyn should be tested - but that there are limits on the proposal. "There isn't a person here who's against sampling Brooklyn," said David Prezant, panelist and deputy chief medical officer for the New York Fire Department. "But there's a fiscal issue here - we don't have the budget." Arguments and applause about just what the budget of the panel is then ensued, with the number $7 million thrown out as the initial number given to the panel.

Prezant continued after the number was offered. "We created a plan trying to find the greatest likelihood of contamination so we could come up with data that could justify more testing. The budget has to both test and clean - you agree that it's ethically irresponsible to test someone's residence and then say, 'you're on your own'?"

Panelist Dr. Paul Lioy, professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, then tried to find some common ground between the WTCCLC, the public, and the panel. "What if we tested a few initial areas of Brooklyn? We have to come up with some reasonable compromise here," he said. "What I'm concerned about here are areas where the public can agree and we can move forward instead of arguing for another seven months."

Other panelists expressed their concern that this was the first they'd ever even heard about a budget for the committee, which brought applause from the audience. Other panelists scrambled to say that the sampling proposal was not budget-driven.

Another point of tension between some panel members and the WTCCLC's own experts was whether the draft sampling proposal should include small asbestos fibers. Morton Lippmann, EPA panel member and New York University professor of environmental medicine, argued that the coalition's comments on expanding the proposal's sampled contaminants were not logical. "The comprehensive testing you're talking about will only offer inconclusive results," he said. "I'm really disappointed with the comments made on short asbestos fibers being toxic - it ignores the research pointing to otherwise."

Carpenter argued that the short fibers were indeed toxic according to scientific studies available to the public. Lippman disagreed, and then added that the coalition's comments on adding dioxin and other chemical mixtures to the proposed sampling were also not useful.

"This kind of report (from the coalition) just creates uncertainty in the public," noted Lippman. "I can't imagine why you're scaring people at this point with dioxin with what we know now. I'm disappointed in this fear-mongering. We painfully produced this report over many months and it's the only sensible idea for technical evaluation that has come forward."

The WTCCLC's other comments on the draft sampling proposal also included recommending the addition of other toxins to the list of contaminants being tested for, and that the selection of buildings to be tested should not just be voluntary due to worries about sampling bias.

The coalition requested "a written, legal memorandum describing the powers of various federal, state, and local agencies to gain access to buildings as it relates to protecting the public's health and environmental testing, and how these powers might be combined to help effectuate the sampling and cleanup program."

David Newman, panel member and industrial hygienist for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), thanked the coalition for its valuable presentation and also addressed the EPA panel on just how to receive the comments. "It's inappropriate for us to be defensive. We as a panel do not have a position on anything - we are helping the EPA come up with a plan," he explained. "We need to take Dr. Carpenter's comments into account. It is quite clear that the EPA said (the WTC collapse) was the greatest release of dioxin ever, so dioxin is not off the table (as a contaminant to be tested for)." He added that he was also concerned about the skewed sampling results if the only buildings tested are those whose owners and landlords volunteer. When one panelist then suggested the EPA use its power to gain access to downtown government buildings for tests, the panel's interim chair responded quickly. "I don't think the EPA can go around telling other agencies what to do," said Timothy Oppelt, director of the EPA's National Homeland Security Research Center. The audience responded with outraged shouts of "Why not?"

Later in the day, panelist Joseph Picciano added his comments on that issue and how it related to the controversy over the EPA's voluntary testing first done immediately after Sept. 11. That testing and cleaning, which had a budget of $30 million, received major criticism over its lack of breadth and quality. It was one of the major causes of the community outrage in the first place. "Relying on voluntary participation isn't too good," said Picciano, acting director of the region 2 office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "If it didn't work too well last time, it probably won't work too well this time."

The all-day panel meeting also intensely discussed the search for a WTC dust signature - which in reality is a search for two signatures: One for the initial buildings' collapse, and the other for the smoldering fires at Ground Zero. Some panelists remained convinced that a signature could be found and that the success of the sampling plan hinged on it.

Currently, scientists at the National Homeland Security Research Center are studying possible signatures. Dr. Jacky Rosati, an environmental scientist with the center, gave a presentation on just where the search is at this point and how soon the signatures could be discovered.

"We've developed screening methods for both of these measures," she explained, noting that the search for the building collapse dust signature is much closer to success than the fire signature is. The final results and validation of the center's screening methods are expected at the end of May.

Panelist Greg Meeker, research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey also spoke on the issue. "We know what's in the dust that was collected at the World Trade Center. We don't know how the components will behave when we move from that area, but there's good evidence that the components won't change substantially."

The WTCCLC and the public voiced their opinions that the sampling should not wait for a signature to be discovered. Others were not convinced that a signature could ever be found anyway.

After a discussion of just how accurate and safe the draft sampling proposal's "trigger" for cleanup being three times the level of background contaminant levels was, one panelist expressed her concern over the point of the signature levels in the first place. "I don't see this as a winning situation for the community - the only way they win is if the plan moves forward," said Columbia Universith Professor Jeanne Stellman, inciting much applause from the audience. "It seems like this whole thing is the government making sure they don't clean anything they don't have to."

NYCOSH's David Newman agreed and repeated his thoughts on the confusion over signatures. "I will reiterate again that we need a definition of a signature and a list of criteria by which a signature will or will not be established. Then we'll see if the research and data will meet that. But right now, I still don't know what those criteria are."

Late in the day, when the public was finally allowed to comment, many had mixed feelings about the panel's response thus far. Most demanded more details on the sampling proposal. "We are encouraged by the info we've heard today, but we'd like to see a full scale presentation of all the details," said Kimberly Flynn of the community group 9/11 Environmental Action. Later, Flynn and some of her fellow organization members gathered during one break to discuss their opinions of the meeting up until then. "They have too high a bar set for cleanup," explained Flynn. "Our guess is that very few units will end up qualified. Plus, there's been very little public process in the signature discussion, which now looks like the cornerstone of the sampling project." Flynn and the other members said they are worried that the cornerstone came from outside the panel.

Stan Mark, program director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, is also worried about the testing. "It sounds like they are only testing for one (contaminant), and it goes back to what David Newman said - how do you define the signature? We're really not getting a clear definition from the panel."

Flynn added that some of the panelists' defensiveness proves one of the WTCCLC's points. "Dr. Carpenter got pounced on for calling (the panel's sampling proposal) a first draft - but look at the confusion on the panel."

Other public comments repeated the request that the EPA panel should be following the issues with the demolition of the buildings around Ground Zero - highlighting especially the demolition of the skyscraper at 130 Liberty Street by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Many want the EPA itself to take full leadership of the demolition. One speaker said she lives in the building right next to 130 Liberty Street, and anytime someone says there can be no lingering health or dust effects from the still-standing damaged buildings, then that person should come take a swab of her air conditioner's filter.

Mark spoke to the panel later on how the testing area should be expanded to up to a five mile radius due to health effects. "(The panel does not) have enough initial data," he explained. "The scope of the testing area is really all the health data. People have been affected up to five miles away. Doctors have testified to the panel before about the health effects and the distance. That's the only real data right now."

Another speaker was an example of the health effects. Steisy Gil, caseworker for the Latin American Workers Project, translated on behalf of Maria Sin Fuentes. Fuentes worked as a custodian for months in several of the buildings around Ground Zero. "The only equipment given to her for cleaning was a paper mask and gloves," said Gil. "She and her coworkers had to clean the air conditioners, ducts, floors, computers - basically they cleaned everything with paper masks and gloves. They were also given unmarked bottles of cleaning fluids. "Her problems now are respiratory problems. She can't breathe well, and she now has hand allergies. These are problems she said she'd never had before. Sometimes her hands and fingers go numb." Gil went on to explain that of the 150 workers her organization is working with, many suffer from similar problems. She said many cannot sleep well due to respiratory issues, others have panic attacks, and still others have children who are now very sick due to the dust brought home on the clothing of the parents. One pregnant woman lost her baby, and testing done in Texas on the fetus showed some trace chemicals. "There is something going on out there, and we want to know what it is," said Gil. "Don't let this pass to our children."

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