Long after the World Trade Center’s pulverized remains are swept away, New Yorkers may be plumbing the depths of the health and environmental damage wrought by the attack. The pillars of smoke and dust that for days stood in place of the twin towers carried fear through the air: almost immediately, questions were raised about what might be riding the plume.
The Philadelphia Daily News showcased a photograph of the smoke in which hysterical types claimed to see the face of Satan. More secular fears ranged from anthrax to the common, and hazardous, asbestos.
And even if the dust falling into the harbor didn’t damage aquatic life, calls for better waterfront infrastructure to handle emergencies are forcing environmentalists to reconsider their plans to revive much of our waterways’ fragile ecosystems. Though New York pulled off its version of the Dunkirk evacuation after the attacks, the city was essentially caught with its pants down on the waterfront. New pier restoration work, bulkhead building, and long-opposed dredging may go ahead to guard against that in the future.
During the week that followed the attack, the acrid smell of burning plastic was so strong that residents far from ground zero mistakenly called in false alarms to fire departments in Queens, Nassau County, Brooklyn, and New Jersey.
Did the chemical smell hint at danger?
“Yes, the building has PCBs, furans, and PVC, lots of PVC especially,” Columbia University journalism professor Steven S. Ross wrote in a memo circulated among activists and journalists. Though the initial inferno destroyed some organic compounds, other toxins were likely released as the blaze abated, Ross said.
And then there’s the asbestos kicked up by the pancaking of 110 floors in free fall. An e-mail from Ross that circulated among journalists and activists pointed out that “the WTC was the LAST big building in the U.S. to use blow-on asbestos insulation to protect the steel beams from fire’s heat.”
“The first four of our samples indicate that the hazards posed by the dust are significant,” confirmed New York Environmental Law Project attorney Joel R. Kupferman. His group and the Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety organization sampled dust at the WTC site, finding worrying levels of fiberglass and asbestos, as well as other potential hazards. Recovery workers interviewed by the groups reported “trouble breathing, some wheezing and coughing. Many are suffering with severe eye irritation and headaches,” according to a report issued by Kupferman. Separately, dermatologist Paul Dantzig wrote to The New York Times Sunday that he was “beginning to see dermatological problems arising from the World Trade Center catastrophe, like foreign-body reactions on the skin and cutaneous infections.” He continued, “The kinds of problems that occur on the skin can also occur in the lungs. People who inhaled large amounts of dust and debris from the center’s collapse will be at risk of developing granulomas and fibrosis of the lungs. I suggest that they be followed medically and receive X-rays now and periodically over the next few years.”
The dust is an immediate concern for Dr. Jacqueline Moline, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “People have been far more affected by dust in the air in the short term than asbestos in the long term,” she said. Otherwise healthy people who are sensitive to the clay, concrete, paper, silica, and steel dust are at risk of “developing reactive airways,” and runny eyes and noses should alert one to particulate irritation. The key isn’t the type of dust, she explained, but the particle size.
Those most vulnerable to the dust storm are people with asthma or underlying conditions, such as cardiopulmonary diseases, that may be aggravated, Moline said.
Air quality tests done by the city haven’t found pollutants at levels to threaten city residents, but Ross noted that those tests began 12 hours after the catastrophe. Kupferman contended that public agencies may be suppressing data to speed the relief effort. Referring to the workers possibly at risk, he said, “In this emergency, it is especially crucial not to keep these heroic people in the dark.”
Infants and the elderly near the scene should be protected if cleanup efforts stir up dust again. “A good rule of thumb is probably to treat this as you would the worst ozone days,” Moline advised.
Asbestos risks jump for those in the WTC “bucket brigade” who take smoke breaks to relieve their stress. Ross pointed out that “there are plenty of documented cases of shipyard workers getting mesothelioma (a cancer of the chest lining, unique to asbestos) after only a few weeks’ exposure” to asbestos. “Smoking,” he said, “raises the risk drastically. Almost 100 percent of all asbestos workers in the ’60s and ’70s who smoked have died of mesothelioma.” Workers sorting through the rubble were begging for packs to be sent down to the disaster site in the days that followed.
Whether or not they smoked, the workers may have been at great risk from asbestos. “The levels of asbestos that have been found are a problem if you’re at ground zero for a sustained period of time,” said Moline. Masks worn by emergency teams first on the scene weren’t adequate, said Moline, but the gear supplied since then is appropriate.
Beyond safety gear is the question of how much exposure to asbestos is too much. Moline contended that “a one- or two-day exposure (without proper protective gear), if not followed by repeated exposures, does not pose substantial risks.”
The federal Environmental Protection Agency Web site answers its own question of “How much exposure does one need to develop an asbestos-related illness?” by saying, “It depends on the individual, just like smoking.” Regardless, the EPA says asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma “do not develop immediately; it may be 20 years or more before symptoms appear.”
That’s plenty of time for workers to encounter hazards in other projects, or even in daily life, making future legal claims difficult to substantiate if the rescue workers themselves become victims much later in life. And the momentum that in 2001 lifted up the workers as heroes entitled to swift and full compensation may have faded by 2031.
A spokesman for the Uniformed Fire Officers Association declined to comment on the issue, saying, “We don’t know anything yet.”
The history of the towers’ construction—and the use of asbestos—is well documented. And the Port Authority may be the last entity standing to sue if decades from now any asbestos illnesses stemming from the catastrophe take hold, says Robert Gordon, a partner with Weitz and Luxenberg, a leading player in asbestos litigation.
Because so many asbestos suppliers to the construction of the World Trade Center are already on financial life support with Chapter 11 bankruptcy, “there will be no one left to sue even if you could identify which company’s asbestos products you were exposed to, and you can’t,” Gordon said.
The impact on the health of the harbor will be more apparent and sustained, but environmentalists may have to be willing to make sacrifices. The bustling wharfs of Lower Manhattan have been turned into parkland, a postindustrial benefit lauded by all. Dredging stopped in large sections of the Hudson River Park to let breeding grounds and small shellfish return, and piers have been left barren for nature to repossess. Walkways are lined with decorative cleats and bollards, artifacts from its maritime heyday.
“I applaud everything done on that park,” said Captain William Sherwood, president of the New York Sandy Hook Pilots Association, the group responsible for guiding ships into the harbor. “It’s a marvel to Manhattan. But it would be good to have some functional pieces of nautical gear as well.”
New York learned the price of that luxury when, in the wake of the twin towers’ collapse, only two working fireboats were on active duty. The John Jay Harvey, a well-maintained museum piece kept off Chelsea, was sent into action. But fireboats, which shift power from engines to pumps when on the scene, need to tie up so the hoses’ thrust doesn’t push them away. The John Jay Harvey, like many other emergency vessels, was forced to tie up to a tree on the promenade. Park officers later chastised boat operators for damaging trees and railings, and ordered them off.
“At the time,” Sherwood recalled, “there weren’t too many people sympathetic to the concerns of the parks department.”
The waterfront itself, built largely on landfill, is weak too, he noted. There were many times in the rescue effort when workers feared that the ground beneath trucks would give when they were pumped full of water and fuel from barges just offshore.
The precarious dance along the seawall might have been avoided if the larger of the more than 100 vessels participating in the effort had places to pull into.
Many of the problems were raised during an emergency harbor operations meeting Thursday. “It was painfully apparent,” said Sherwood, “that although there were a number of ferry slips available, a good portion of this was out of commission in relatively short order.” And bigger boats had few ways of getting in and out of Manhattan.
Environmentalists who work from boats know the problem well. “If somebody had decided to bomb the east side of Manhattan, the UN, we would have been S.O.L., shit out of luck,” said Andy Mele, executive director of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater Inc., a nonprofit environmental group formed in 1966 by folksinger Pete Seeger.
Sherwood agreed, noting that on much of the East Side, roadways have created a concrete wall that cuts ships off from the street grid. “It stands to reason to accept that Manhattan is an island and that at some time it’s going to be serviced by vessels, not just in a disaster, so you should make it receptive to vessels,” Sherwood said.
Already the southern end of the Hudson River Park has been dredged so that barges can carry away debris. That would have been unthinkable three weeks ago. In an emergency, ferries would have an easier time docking in that embayment, south of Pier 25, than the New York Waterways’ nearby ferry station, which is exposed to current and is difficult to maneuver into.
“I think that some limited dredging for emergency purposes is viable,” Mele conceded. “Nobody ever imagined that we’d have to plan for something like [the WTC attack], and that was clearly an oversight.”
Sherwood would like channels to Manhattan dredged up and down the Hudson and East rivers, with stronger bulkheads added and hardware to tie up to, even if it’s just for crews to get water from a hydrant or buy provisions at a grocery store. Such use might even help pay for the upkeep of emergency resources.
That might be pushing things too far for greens. “One recognizes that fish habitat is of scant comfort when a city is under attack,” said Mele, but “one of the reasons we have opposed dredging is that there is so much development pressure on that area. If we are to preserve a public amenity and environmental value, these points of access will have to be limited to emergency use only.”
Economic pressure is going to be hard to resist, said Ralph Diaz, a member of the advisory council of the Hudson River Park Trust and chairman of the harbor’s Human Powered Boating Group. “I don’t think anyone is going to charge forward worried about microscopic marine life or breeding grounds” while recovery efforts continue, said Diaz. “But I don’t agree . . . that every pier up and down the river has to be hardened to be emergency-ready in a way that makes them commercially ready.”
Greens know, however, that future environmental remediation projects will likely be put on hold. “I think the [Hudson River] Park is going to now be stymied,” said Diaz. “They don’t have the money, and it’s going to be hard to argue for parks money” as New York rebuilds. “The lower part of the park is going to be very badly affected for a long, long time.”