Dusted

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

But you didn't have to work on the pile to get sick. Many, like Sanchez, who cleaned the Trade Center dust in downtown skyscrapers have suffered similar illnesses. In 2001, Queens College professor Steven Markowitz, an occupational-health physician, set up a medical van two blocks from the WTC site and screened 415 cleanup laborers. He recorded the coughs, the wheezing, the sore throats. A year later, he found most workers' symptoms were persisting.

Meanwhile, the few studies on residents uncover a wave of damage. In 2003, researchers examining 205 asthmatic children found that those who live within five miles of the WTC site endured more bouts, requiring more doctor visits and medicines. That year, researchers surveyed 2,812 residents and determined that half of them living within a mile of ground zero had developed respiratory troubles.

Count Kelly Colangelo among this group. The Lower Manhattan resident has lived in three apartments since the terrorist attacks, moving repeatedly in an attempt to escape adverse health effects. Her first apartment, on John Street, a block from the WTC site, was saturated in dust. "It covered everything," she says, from the sofa to carpet to drapes. She even discovered it inside her cabinets.

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.

She hired cleaners, who wiped away the dust in what she calls "a once-over." Yet soon after she returned, she noticed symptoms. She couldn't breathe. She broke out in a rash. She felt dizzy. Worse, she endured searing abdominal pain. Seeking answers, Colangelo says she sent dust samples of her freshly cleaned abode to a lab, only to find asbestos at double the threshold for safety.

Things didn't get better at apartment two, along the Hudson River, overlooking the pier where debris was loaded on barges bound for Staten Island. So when another unit in her building went vacant last fall, she relocated again. This time, she has tossed the carpet, drapes, and upholstered furniture. And this time, finally, she hasn't experienced a single symptom.

"Personally," she says, "I feel my health problems have to be related to residual dust. What other explanation could there be?"

Gail Benzman, a city employee at the Housing Authority, wonders the same thing. She works at a municipal building on Center Street, seven blocks from ground zero. From the moment she returned to her office, two weeks after the attacks, she began experiencing ailments she never had before.

"Some days are better than others," she says, between strained-sounding coughs. Doctors diagnosed her with sinusitis and asthma, attributed to WTC-related pollution. She now uses an inhaler regularly; about four times a year, she takes antibiotics to relieve the infections.

Benzman knows the Trade Center dust blew into her building. And she knows it pervaded the place until November 2001, when a cleaning crew had at it. Still, she suspects traces linger to this day. Why else would colleagues who started on the job a year after the cleanup develop the same respiratory troubles she has?

"This isn't the only building where people keep getting sick," Benzman says, struggling to control her cough. She cannot believe that she and thousands more don't know the extent of WTC-related pollution downtown, even now, four years later. She tends to push the thought out of her mind. But whenever her asthma acts up, she says, "it brings back the anger that something is not being done."


That anger, in many ways, stems more from the EPA's overall response to 9-11 fallout than from its current plan. Invariably, critics bring up the agency's actions—or lack thereof—within days of the attacks. How administrators proclaimed the air "safe" to breathe. How their assurances provoked employees to return to work and residents to return home. How the agency shirked its mission to protect people from what amounted to a massive chemical spill.

The whole attitude about WTC-related contamination seemed, in the words of activist Kimberly Flynn, "sheer negligence." She confides, "It still boils my blood. I don't have words for what an outrage this is."

That outrage has only been reinforced over the years. In August 2003, the EPA inspector general issued a scathing 165-page report on the agency's 9-11 response. It disclosed some disconcerting facts—that the White House had pressured the EPA to sanitize its warnings about ground zero, for instance. In effect, the report revealed a whitewash the agency has yet to live down.

Even advisory panel members recognize the past has made the current debate over a sampling plan more difficult. Says David Prezant, deputy chief medical officer for the New York fire department, who serves on the board, "There's a lot of resentment about the way this issue was originally handled."


Brown, of the EPA, speaks of the distrust this way: "I believe that by judging EPA's actions—not just our promise to do what's right, but our work in sampling and cleaning up whatever should be cleaned up—the community will recognize that we are worthy of their trust."

To hear critics, though, the EPA has never acted without outside pressure. Congressman Nadler, a Manhattan Democrat, has drawn attention to the issue from the start, hosting press conferences, testifying at hearings. In April 2002, his office put out a critical "white paper" documenting how the EPA had violated its own rules by failing to test and clean up downtown.

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