Long after 9-11, some people say the dust is still making them sick. Now they want the EPA to do something about it.

Alex Sanchez likes to say he's "living proof" the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's response to the September 11 terrorist attacks bordered on the criminal. Sanchez was exposed to dust from the World Trade Center disaster as a cleanup worker in skyscrapers around ground zero. He spent seven months enveloped in the lethal material, wiping it from cubicles, blowing it out of vents. It stung his throat, burned his eyes, and choked his lungs.

"The EPA said the air was safe," he remembers, as the fourth anniversary of 9-11 nears, "and when you read that coming from a government official, you don't second-guess it."

Now he does. Sanchez, 38, of Washington Heights, walks with a cane, hunched in pain, hampered by escalating respiratory problems. Doctors have diagnosed him with musculo-skeletal syndrome and asthma, attributed to exposure to the WTC dust. He takes as many as 23 medications.

A 9-11 victim: Alex Sanchez fell ill after cleaning office buildings downtown.
photo: Steven Sunshine
A 9-11 victim: Alex Sanchez fell ill after cleaning office buildings downtown.

Yet what bothers Sanchez isn't so much his own health—"I'm already damaged goods," he says—but the bigger picture. He thinks about people who live and work in the buildings surrounding ground zero, like the ones he used to clean, the ones he worries weren't properly tested for contamination. Residents, office workers, schoolchildren: These are the people who may still be breathing in toxic dust, yet not know it. "I'm afraid there are people who will end up just like me walking around these buildings today," he says.

Sanchez isn't alone. For more than a year, dozens of people who live and work in and around Lower Manhattan have been locked in a debate with the EPA over its latest proposal to test for lingering Trade Center dust. A coalition of activists—from labor, tenant, small business, and environmental groups—have pushed agency officials to do the right thing—that is, determine the 9-11-related contamination remaining in downtown and clean it up.

The coalition is helped by a few local lawmakers, among them Representative Jerrold Nadler and Senator Hillary Clinton, and fueled by distrust born of the EPA's initial response after 9-11. New Yorkers were told back then that conditions were safe when in fact they were not. None of these activists finds it easy to believe the agency's latest promises.

In July, activists pressed their case before an EPA advisory panel, made up of 18 technical experts and government officials, who are charged with helping the agency establish a sampling plan and identify unmet public-health needs. Attendees describe the scene as a "showdown," with residents and office workers offering emotional testimony. One resident even collected dust from the blackened filter of her air purifier and presented it to the panelists. "I said, 'This is the dust from my apartment. Why don't you take it home and eat with it and sleep with it every day?' " relays Esther Regelson, who lives two blocks south of ground zero, and who has noticed her pre-existing asthma condition worsening.

The EPA has defended its strategy, which is to analyze only limited samples from Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. "I believe the plan is scientifically sound," says Michael Brown, of the EPA Office of Research and Development, which convened the panel after Senator Clinton put the screws to the agency. Though, he adds, "we still have what I'll call a short distance to go to get the plan to a place where the community will support it." He says the agency is committed to doing what's right. "We will spend whatever is necessary to assure the health and well-being of those living and working in Lower Manhattan."

But activists say the EPA has produced a plan so seriously flawed that it appears designed to find as little remaining pollution as possible. And the less the EPA finds, the less it has to clean up.

No one knows for a fact whether Trade Center dust lingers downtown. But as Catherine McVay Hughes, a Lower Manhattan resident who sits on the EPA board, points out, what people do know doesn't allay their concerns. To date, a handful of tall buildings have been deemed so heavily contaminated that they've been slated for demolition. Some neighboring buildings have been deemed in need of years-long cleanup. Others have seen no cleanup at all.

At the very least, McVay Hughes says, the community wants a sampling plan that answers the questions, once and for all. "We expect the EPA to design a plan that will look for the dust, find it, and clean it up."

The community has every reason to worry about remaining contamination. The collapse of the 110-story twin towers released a lethal cloud of debris. Concrete, steel, glass, asbestos, plastics, mercury, lead: It all came crashing down, pulverized into dust. Add to this brew the fires that burned for three months, giving off a putrid plume.

"It was a toxic soup," says Suzanne Mattei, of the New York City Sierra Club, who wrote a 265-page report on the 9-11 fallout. "People were exposed to not one chemical but multiple chemicals"— in short, to dangerous stuff.

It didn't take long for those most heavily exposed—the workers who sifted through the rubble and shipped it away—to experience health problems. Almost instantly, the coughing emerged, as did wheezing, throat irritation, and chest pain. Last September, the Mount Sinai Medical Center released data from its 9-11 medical-screening program, which has tested over 14,000 first responders and volunteers. The center reported that 88 percent suffered from at least one WTC-related ear, nose, or throat symptom. Over half endured respiratory ailments for months.

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