Testimony of Jenna Orkin, Ground
Ombudsman Panel, January 14, 2003
Stuyvesant High Sschool, Toxic Site [info on residences is also covered]
I am the mother of a 17-year-old boy who was a student at Stuyvesant High School four blocks north of Ground Zero on September 11. The experience of Stuyvesant may serve as a microcosm for that of Lower Manhattan as a whole.
In a statement that will undoubtedly resonate for years to come, on September 13, Christy Todd Whitman declared the air downtown to be safe. Thus on October 9, four weeks after the WTC attack and after government agencies assured us the building had had a thorough cleanup, Stuyvesant reopened to cries of, "Get back to normal!" and, "Show the terrorists!" Wall Street was up and running again so all was right with the world.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, the week that Stuyvesant returned to its building was the week that Dr. Thomas Cahill of U.C. Davis conducted studies a mile north of Ground Zero which revealed levels of very- and ultra-fine particulates that were higher than at the Kuwaiti oil fields.
For the next eight months, Stuyvesant got a double whammy of toxic waste: Not only did they have the WTC site to the south, they also had it on their north doorstep where the waste transfer barge stayed while being loaded with the debris that was to be carted away to Staten Island. This placement was in violation of state and federal laws, but in the so-called "emergency" that prevailed for the eight months of the cleanup (and what sort of emergency was it, exactly, after the first few weeks when it was clear no one else would have survived? A real estate emergency? An economic emergency?) environmental laws were thrown to the four toxin-laden winds. The barge operation was host to diesel cranes and idling diesel trucks that worked 'round the clock seven days a week. Only now are the carcinogenic and toxic properties of diesel being more fully recognized.
How was Stuyvesant equipped to handle this onslaught? The school's filtration system was about 10% effective until the end of January when, at the insistence of the 6000 member Parents' Association, it was upgraded to 40% effectiveness. Although we had been told the school's cleanup had included the ventilation system, we later learned that in fact the ventilation system had not been cleaned.
For half the days until February, Particulate Matter 2.5 - dust that is small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and not come out again - was above EPA regulatory levels. Often it was higher at Stuyvesant than at Ground Zero. Because of its relatively large surface area to volume ratio, P.M. 2.5 also adsorbed onto its surface whatever toxic chemicals were in the debris.
Isocyanates and tetrachloroethane also exceeded EPA limits when they were measured but, after the troubling results, they weren't measured again. [Actually a year after this was written, I did find more test results for these contaminants.] High levels of lead were found in the gym where the lead could be inhaled deeply and in the cafeteria where it could settle on students' food. In response to these findings a representative from the Board of Education which, due to EPA's being missing in action, was in charge of cleaning up the schools wrote, "While lead can cause several adverse health effects, these are usually from prolonged exposure to the dust from the metal or when children consume lead-based
paint." Apparently he didn't realize that lead sprinkled on pizza will be consumed.
The synergistic effect of all these contaminants is only imperfectly understood. However Dr. Stephen Levin of Mt. Sinai has pointed out that if you're an asbestos worker and a smoker, for instance, the effect is not simply twice as bad as being one or the other: it's eighty or ninety times as bad. To our knowledge, other synergies have not been so thoroughly studied.
In spite of the fact that FEMA had allocated 20 million dollars to clean the Ground Zero schools, the Board of Education refused to clean the ventilation system of Stuyvesant or even to do wipe tests. Finally parents, using the pro bono services of attorney Richard Ben-Veniste of Watergate fame, threatened to sue. [Ben-Veniste went on to serve on the 9/11 Commission whose findings leave much to be desired.] The BOE capitulated and performed the wipe tests but held onto the results for six weeks. We threatened to sue again. They released the results which showed thirty times the level of lead which one might expect to find on the floor. (There are no standards for lead in ventilation systems.) After more threats of lawsuits the BOE agreed to clean the ventilation system over the summer.
During that cleanup they removed the auditorium carpet explaining they were doing so for 'aesthetic reasons.' A group of parents known as Concerned Stuyvesant Community had two segments of the carpet tested for asbestos using an EPA test known as ultrasonication. One of the samples came back with a reading of 2.4 million structures per sq cm. Several experts whom we have consulted believe this represents 250 times normal background levels. But all agree it is a level which calls for remediation. The carpet was replaced, the BOE still citing 'aesthetic reasons.'
However the BOE, which had since renamed itself the Department of Education, refused to perform ultrasonication or another approved test, American Standard Testing and Methodology microvac, on the auditorium seats. They claimed that these two tests were controversial. Instead they performed a test of their own devising which involved beating the seats with sticks and testing the air. This test has not been subject to peer review much less received the imprimatur of a body such as EPA or ASTM. Nor was it performed under anyone's oversight. We don't know what air volume or flow was used, where the monitors were placed nor how hard the seats were beaten. It is ironic that the DOE rejected two established tests on the grounds that they're insufficiently understood, opting instead to perform a test which isn't understood at all. Not surprisingly, however, the seats came up with a clean bill of health.
In an analogous situation in Brookfield, Connecticut where asbestos was also found, the school system was closed down until a level of 5000 structures of asbestos per sq. cm. (a relatively low level) was achieved. In at least one school the auditorium seats were replaced and ceiling tiles wet-wiped and hepa-vacuumed. This took place in EPA Region 1. We would like the same treatment in EPA Region 2.
However, of the 20 million dollars which the DOE received from FEMA to clean the Ground Zero schools, at last count they had used only ten. While we wish they had used all twenty, we do not even know what they did with the ten million dollars they spent. Perhaps it is some of that money that was used to lure students at the High School for Leadership and Public Service back to school when they complained last year how upsetting it was to watch body parts being carried past their door. The school handed out fifty dollars worth of gift certificates to bookstores and Modell's Sporting Goods to students who achieved a certain level of attendance; one hundred dollars worth for perfect attendance.
Resident Remove Tons Of Toxic Debris From Apartments
Meanwhile Lower Manhattan residents were no better off. In the days immediately following 9/11, the EPA bequeathed responsibility for indoor air to city agencies. Rising to the challenge the NYC Department of Health recommended that to clean up the dust in their apartments, people use a wet rag. Ever willing to lend a helping hand, the Red Cross gave out buckets to assist in what was being portrayed as nothing more than a piece of heavy-duty housecleaning. Where the dust was really bad, the DOH recommended that residents wear long pants.
Armed with this advice, residents such as Michael Cook threw out furniture and over 150 twenty gallon bags of contaminated debris. Not surprisingly, many residents soon suffered rashes and respiratory symptoms such as chronic and/or the newly coined "chemical" bronchitis. Those who could afford to moved out of New York. Others moved to hotels temporarily.
A third group manifested a burgeoning distrust of government agencies by hiring independent contractors to test their apartments. Some of these tests revealed high levels of cadmium, lead and mercury in the ventilation system. One woman, Nina Lavin, who had shut off her ventilation system on September 11 in anticipation of environmental havoc, nonetheless had twelve times normal background levels of asbestos across the room from the window. She is now in limbo, living in a hotel.
At Stuyvesant also, a Health Hazard Evaluation performed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that 60% of the staff had had respiratory and other symptoms which they attributed to their exposure to the air at school. No such study was conducted among students. However parents reported that their children had been diagnosed with new-onset asthma that could last the rest of their lives; chronic sinusitis entailing heavy doses of steroids and antibiotics and chemical bronchitis. One girl had her first asthmatic episode in seven years - an attack that landed her in the Emergency Ward - after swimming in the Stuyvesant pool which had not been cleaned.
The Deputy Chancellor of Schools complained that parents' reports of illnesses were "anecdotal." This is true. In the absence of a scientific study, all we had to go on was anecdotal reports. He also said, "we believe the events of September 11 and its emotional aftermath have contributed to a number of these incidents." In other words, the illnesses were at least partly psychosomatic. The Deputy Chancellor did not elaborate on whom he meant by "we."
After several months of attending hearings and talking to scientists, by February, 2002, I had amassed enough evidence to convince my ex-husband that our son should not be in the Stuyvesant building. Crucial among the pieces of evidence I'd acquired was a letter from the EPA Ombudsman, Robert Martin, saying that the Stuyvesant building was not fit for habitation. This letter was unique in its status as an advisory from a governmental authority and critical in tipping the balance in my exhusband's thinking.
Ombudsman Martin and his Chief Investigator Hugh Kaufman also held two hearings which provided a turning point in the struggle of Lower Manhattan. While the State Assembly and City Council had held several hearings each, these ultimately resulted in little discernible change. They seemed designed to do exactly what the term said: to hear. A roster of officials heard, shook their heads in wonder and pity but in the end, were unable to do anything.
In some ways those hearings may even have done more harm than good. For the arrangements of the local hearings were always the same: Agency representatives spoke for the first three hours while the news media were in attendance. Invariably they presented a rosy picture of how hard they were working and the pleasing results. At noon, the media rushed out to edit their stories regardless of the fact that they'd only heard half.
In the afternoon we, the hangers-on, the dregs of the hearing, got to say our piece to a room vacated by all but the most zealous advocates of our cause. By that time even most of the panel had fled leaving a token member who would nod sympathetically in between taking calls on his cellphone.
The Ombudsman hearings were the opposite of this sorry picture. The first witness was Dr. Cahill of U.C. Davis who revealed for the first time the news about ultrafine particulates a mile from Ground Zero. Other representatives of our side of the story followed him, interspersed with Agency reps. Ombudsman Martin and Chief Investigator Kaufman asked knowledgeable questions, having done a great deal of legwork and homework. Agency reps didn't get off lightly.
Nor did we. The hearings went on until 11 p.m. But there is no place we would rather have been. With the Ombudsman hearings we felt a change of direction; in every sense of the phrase, a breath of fresh air.
EPA Agrees To Clean Apartments
As a result of pressure from the Ombudsman and his Chief Investigator as well as Congressman Nadler and other elected officials, on May 8, 2002 the EPA announced it would clean apartments in Lower Manhattan south of Canal Street or test them for asbestos. Not workplaces or schools; just apartments because, they said, they had to start somewhere. When asked if they would consider expanding their cleanup above the arbitrary boundary of Canal Street or into Brooklyn where NASA photographs show the plume went on September 11 itself when 95% of the airborne debris from the disaster fell, the EPA said they were looking into it. With this they opened a hotline and waited for the phone to ring.
Over the next seven and a half months it rang about six thousand times, for approximately one out of five residences. The problem was EPA's outreach. They sent out only one flier that we know of and many residents didn't receive it. In addition, EPA's ads never mentioned cancer or the other ills that might ensue from living in contaminated apartments. Indeed, EPA said they did not expect serious long-term effects from the toxic substances that remained in people's apartments. Instead, they maintained that the cleanup was merely to 'assuage residents' concerns.' And since the EPA was telling them they had no reason to be concerned, most people didn't bother to call. Besides, about a quarter of the residents in Lower Manhattan are new to the area, having been lured by liberty bonds worth up to $14,000 and have no idea they could have moved into a toxic zone.
Cleanup Plan Is A Farce
The cleanup itself was also flawed although most people did not realize that. Common areas and ventilation systems were largely ignored. This meant that apartments which were cleaned might be recontaminated as soon as residents turned on the air conditioning or even opened the door. And because cleanup was voluntary, apartments could also be recontaminated by neighboring apartments that opted not to get cleaned. Finally, because small businesses were not included in the plan, they could recontaminate apartments that shared their buildings. Contrary to what certain government agencies have said, dust does not stay put.
Although the cleanup plan did not include workplaces, EPA did perform a pilot test of a small business cleanup at a restaurant at 112 Liberty Street. The contractors removed half the ceiling and left the contaminated other half. They did not lock the restaurant when they left so that during the night it was robbed. They lost the owner's keys. Perhaps by not receiving an EPA cleanup, small businesses in fact got the better deal.
While the response to the cleanup was lackadaisical, an even smaller number of people opted for the testing only option. Of those, about two percent were found to have apartments contaminated with asbestos. Extrapolating from this, City Councilman Alan Gerson has pointed out there may well be six hundred apartments downtown that are contaminated with asbestos, most of which have not been tested, let alone cleaned. And this does not take into account the hundreds of other contaminants that were released from the collapse of the towers and subsequent fires. EPA's testing plan omitted them all.
The testing only option was troubling for other reasons as well. In its hunt for asbestos the EPA was performing only air tests. However, at the Toxicological Excellence in Risk Assessment conference in October several scientists agreed that testing of hard and porous surfaces should be investigated and used more extensively.
And there were problems with the way the air tests were conducted. In its counting of asbestos fibers, EPA omitted fibers smaller than five microns on the theory that they would be handled by the body's immune system. However, scientists do not agree that this is so. At the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry conference which also took place in October there was discussion about the likelihood that length of fiber might not be so important as an aspect ratio of greater than 3:1.
The Ombudsman Resigns
In the mean time the Ombudsman had been relocated to the Inspector General's office and Robert Martin resigned in protest. We have read that the IG is now in charge of the World Trade Center case. This is news to us. We have not seen or spoken to her nor to anyone from her office. By contrast former Ombudsman Martin and Chief Investigator Kaufman continue to take an active interest in us and we hear from them regularly. They send us articles and give advice when we ask for it.
On December 28, following a media spree in which the EPA released studies which supposedly supported the Good News that the air downtown was less toxic than everyone feared, the EPA hotline closed. The EPA had never said what levels of contamination they found after all the looking they did at data from above Canal Street or in Brooklyn but whatever those data were apparently did not call for cleaning.
I question these results because I live in downtown Brooklyn and out of curiosity I had ultrasonication performed on my carpet. The reading came back 79,333 structures of asbestos per sq cm, a level of concern. I had an asbestos abatement which involved four contractors working twenty hours on a two-room apartment. The phase-contrast microscopy test that was subsequently performed showed that my apartment passed its Ahera test but still contained asbestos which might pose a one in three hundred cancer risk. This is much higher than the results EPA has reported for Lower Manhattan.
This year the travails of Lower Manhattan continue. We hear of new-onset asthma in Chinatown as well as a case in a girl who has homeroom in the Stuyvesant auditorium; a girl developing pressure in her spinal fluid requiring a spinal tap, possibly, her doctors say, the first of many; a high number of flus and a particularly virulent stomach virus; the return of respiratory symptoms which had diminished over the summer; a teacher with pneumonia.
When Christy Todd Whitman declared the air in Lower Manhattan to be safe to breathe she set in motion a chain of events that many of us believe will prove the undoing of thousands. Already Ground Zero workers are suing the city for their exposure to toxic substances during the recovery operation. Many rescue dogs are sick and at least one, "Bear," has died. We fear that their fate is a harbinger of that of residents, workers, our children and ourselves.
Need For Ombudsman
The foxes are in charge of the chicken coop. Having made initial mistakes they are in the position of having to defend those mistakes by compounding them. Clearly, there are not enough checks and balances in place. Not enough watchdogs to guard against the foxes nor enough penalties to make those in charge think twice about lying and compounding the lie. The penalties for compounding lies should increase exponentially over time to prevent the paramount ethic at work from being, "Cover your tracks at all costs."
To correct this abysmal situation, the Ombudsman must be restored and given full independence. His office provided checks and balances. As a watchdog he was the people's best friend. It is surely suspicious that as soon as his investigation of the WTC case got going, he was moved to the IG's office, "for his own good." If the move was truly in response to his request for greater independence, why did EPA not honor his request to leave him where he was? The office of the Ombudsman must be reopened for business and on the Ombudsman's terms.