E.P.A. in the Cross Hairs
New York Times
Monday 08 September 2003
The Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality have been sharply criticized for playing down the potential dangers of exposure to ash, smoke and dust generated by the collapse of the World Trade Center. The inspector general of the E.P.A. has criticized the agency for making overly reassuring statements that could not be supported by any evidence in hand, and blamed the environmental council for pushing the E.P.A. to eliminate caveats and accentuate the positive. Our own sense is that much of the criticism is retrospective nitpicking of decisions made in the midst of a crisis, but it does seem clear that federal and local agencies could have better informed residents of any hazards they would face when they returned to work or live in the area.
Even so, it is important to understand that the major victims of exposure to pollutants were workers at the site or cleaning up buildings who failed to use respirators. Many of them are now being treated for continuing respiratory ailments, and some may well face lifelong disability. The broader public faced little or no risk from breathing the outdoor air once the initial cloud settled. An unpublished E.P.A. risk analysis found that people were unlikely to suffer adverse health effects from the outdoor air they breathed. Outside experts told the inspector general's office that levels of airborne asbestos, the most feared contaminant, posed no significant long-term risk.
The main issue is whether apartments and offices have been adequately cleaned and tested to ensure that no toxic dust remains to cause a long-term risk to inhabitants. The inspector general's report faults both the E.P.A. and, by implication, New York City's Health Department for failing to press residents and businesses to seek professional cleaning in contaminated apartments instead of doing the cleaning themselves. Only 4,100 apartments have been cleaned or tested under a program eventually established by the city and federal government. Some 18,000 residential units were not tested or cleaned through the program, but many were presumably cleaned and tested before the program started. Nobody knows how many buildings might still have dust lingering in rugs, furniture or air vents that could emerge to cause a hazard. That suggests the need for one final testing program.
The real long-term health effects, if any, will not be known for decades. City and federal health officials started an ambitious tracking project on Friday that will try to follow the health histories of up to 200,000 people exposed to the pollutants. It behooves all who fear for their health or want to contribute to important research to participate.
Jump to TO Features for Wednesday 10 September 2003