Asbestos found in I.P.N., after E.P.A. cleanup

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Richard Zimbler and his wife Lori Mogol in their apartment overlooking ground zero.

Lori Mogol and Richard Zimbler watched from their balcony at Independence Plaza North as ground zero was cleaned ahead of schedule. But almost a year after the last of the debris was hauled away, the couple’s home still has not been cleared of toxins that likely resulted from the collapse of the World Trade Center.

In late February, elevated levels of asbestos were detected in the couple’s apartment after it was cleaned and tested by Environmental Protection Agency contractors. In mid-March, the agency sent them a letter they found to be confusing and technical, informing them of the excess asbestos and advising, “You will be contacted by an E.P.A. representative who will discuss these results with you and help you to decide upon a follow up course of action.”

Six weeks later, Mogol and Zimbler said they had received no further communication from the E.P.A. Along with their psychic wounds from the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attack, the asbestos in their apartment serves as a constant reminder of the events of that day.

“We haven’t even gotten beyond the physical cleanup, because there are chemicals in here,” Zimbler said. “So how can we go on to recovery?”

Zimbler has experienced congestion and other respiratory problems since Sept. 11, 2001, although Mogol has not. In addition to witnessing the events of the day, the couple has a close friend who lost her husband in the trade center attack.

Zimbler and Mogol are not alone in their frustration with the E.P.A.’s voluntary asbestos testing and cleanup program, a response to the World Trade Center disaster that began last August in residences south of Canal, Pike, and Allen Sts. Some of their neighbors, and the building management at I.P.N., have also found themselves waiting for months for answers about the safety of the three-building complex in Tribeca, especially 310 Greenwich St., the southern-most of the three, where Zimbler and Mogol live in an apartment that faces the trade center site.

E.P.A. tests taken after the couple’s apartment was cleaned by ATC Associates, one of the agency’s contractors, revealed asbestos levels in their dining room of .0021 fibers per cubic centimeter, more than double the E.P.A.’s risk-based clearance level of .0009 fibers per cubic centimeter. In keeping with the program’s protocol for asbestos, no tests were taken prior to the cleanup, so it cannot be determined what the asbestos levels might have been before E.P.A. contractors spent a day vacuuming and wiping the apartment.

“You don’t have time to be scared—it’s a distraction,” Zimbler said, adding, “If I was to sit down quietly and think about it, I would say it’s frightening.”

Officials with ATC referred all questions about the cleanup to the E.P.A.

Mary Mears, an E.P.A. spokesperson, said that the agency’s coordinator for I.P.N. tried calling Zimbler and Mogol three or four times to follow up on the letter but was unable to reach them. The couple believes it is unlikely that they missed the E.P.A. calls, as Mogol develops Web sites from a home office and an answering machine takes messages when she leaves the apartment during business hours.

“They goofed up,” Mogol said.

Zimbler and Mogol said they did not know whether elevated asbestos levels were found in any of their neighbors’ apartments. Nearly two weeks ago, the Environmental Committee of the I.P.N. Tenants’ Association distributed a survey to residents of 310 Greenwich St., asking them to report on their experience with the E.P.A. cleanup. The committee is currently collecting the survey results and distributing the questionnaire to the other two buildings.

Diane Lapson, the head of the environmental committee, estimated that about half of I.P.N. tenants initially registered for the E.P.A. program, but said she did not know how many decided to continue with the process.

A tenant of 310 Greenwich St. interviewed outside the building said that he, too, received a letter from the E.P.A. after his apartment was cleaned, informing him that asbestos levels there exceeded the agency’s benchmark. The tenant, a 39-year-old who works for the city and declined to give his name, said he got the letter in early March but never received any follow-up call from the E.P.A. that explained the results or suggested further action.

“I let it go at that,” the tenant said, adding that he was “a little upset about it” but decided not to pursue the issue because he didn’t know how much longer he would be living in his apartment, which faces north.

Mogol and Zimbler also did not immediately call the E.P.A. after they received the letter. They are in the process of replacing their soft furniture to eliminate the risk of contaminated upholstery. When Mogol called the agency last week, she was told to call the contractor directly to schedule a re-cleaning, Mogol said.

When a residence does not pass the E.P.A. risk-based clearance level, then it is re-cleaned, Mears said. The four cleaning contractors the E.P.A. has engaged for its Lower Manhattan program are also responsible for scheduling appointments, Mears said.

To be sure, the number of residences found with asbestos levels that exceed the E.P.A. risk-based clearance represents a small fraction of the total cleaned and tested by the agency’s contractors. Of the 3,008 apartments cleaned and tested as of April 24, slightly under one percent showed elevated asbestos, while an additional 3.9 percent could not be evaluated due to clogged filters or other mechanical complications.

The E.P.A. developed the risk-based asbestos standard of .0009 fibers per cubic centimeter specifically for the agency’s Lower Manhattan cleaning and testing program, Mears said. A person exposed to that level of asbestos continuously for 30 years has a one in 10,000 risk of developing asbestos-related cancer, according to E.P.A. toxicologist Dr. Mark Maddaloni. Since the levels found in Mogol and Zimbler’s apartment were about double those of the standard, their asbestos-related cancer risk would rise to two in 10,000, Maddaloni said.

More than any immediate health concerns, Zimbler and Mogol say they are upset by the way the E.P.A. has treated them.

“This is what maddens me, just the absolute lack of accountability,” Zimbler said. “To me, one of the biggest problems of the E.P.A. is they’re still thinking of themselves as an enforcer. They haven’t seemed to make the leap like every other federal agency that they’re first responders.”

Others say the E.P.A. is doing the best that it can with a problem of unprecedented scope and a program that falls outside its usual duties.

“I think what the E.P.A. is doing is what they’re supposed to do,” said Steven Cohen, the director of a graduate program in environmental science and policy at the Earth Institute of Columbia University. “The question on follow through is whether the people who received the letter did follow through. It doesn’t seem like it’s that complicated.”

Portia Lessey, a resident of 310 Greenwich St. who participated in the E.P.A. program, had nothing but praise for the agency and its contractors.

“It went perfect,” Lessey said. “They did a good job.”

The process did not go as smoothly for Zimbler and Mogol. A set of technical charts accompanied the E.P.A. cover letter that they received informing them of their asbestos results. Their dining room asbestos level of .0021 fibers per cubic center meter was not mentioned in the cover letter, which simply said that their apartment’s asbestos levels exceed the E.P.A. standard, and instead the data was noted on charts that Maddaloni said were “admittedly not that readable.”

Maddaloni and other experts have helped residents who call the agency decipher their test results. The E.P.A.’s letter to Zimbler and Mogol included a phone number to call with any questions. But some say that the charts should be more clearly presented, eliminating the need for further assistance.

“The average tenant has no idea what these mean—they see numbers all over the place,” said Deborah Dolan, the property manager at I.P.N, who said that through experience, she has become more practiced at reading lab results.

Dolan said she has been trying since last fall to learn the results of the E.P.A.’s testing and cleaning of the common areas at I.P.N.

“The whole thing is just ridiculous,” Dolan said. “Everything is a secret for some reason.”

Dolan said that I.P.N. underwent a series of asbestos tests in the 1980s that came out clear, increasing the likelihood that any asbestos found in I.P.N. could have come from the trade center collapse. The buildings of I.P.N. were built right around the time when New York City stopped using asbestos in construction, which was in 1973, according to a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

The E.P.A. has not yet released the I.P.N. common area test results because contractors are still re-cleaning parts of the complex, said Ben Barry, a community involvement coordinator for the E.P.A. Barry said he could not confirm whether the re-cleaning was due to elevated asbestos levels or filter problems that prevented an initial reading, but he said that mechanical difficulty was generally more often the cause for a re-cleaning.

“We usually just try to give the final results because a progress report wouldn’t do a good job of telling residents the status of a building,” Barry said.

Barry declined to give an estimate of when the agency would be done testing and re-cleaning at I.P.N., but said that once the common area test results were compiled, a copy would be sent to the I.P.N. tenants’ association.

Some residents do not want to wait any longer, saying that even bad news would be better than uncertainty.

“We have a lot of fears, because we’re not hearing the truth of the situation,” Lapson said.

Lapson and others worry about the possibility of re-contaminating apartments if common areas found to have elevated asbestos are re-cleaned after apartments have already been scoured.

Barry said cross-contamination risks were minimal since the asbestos levels are low to begin with and the complex’s new carpeting would trap any harmful fibers.

Mogol and Zimbler said they sometimes feel the city has forgotten those who are still hurting from the terror attacks of Sept 11. A clean, asbestos-free apartment would be a good place to begin the healing process, they said, but it won’t bring back those who were lost.

“All this cleanup is a metaphor for move on and forget,” Mogol said. “Then everything will be all right. But it isn’t.”


Downtown Express is published by
Community Media LLC.

Downtown Express | 487 Greenwich St., Suite 6A | New York, NY 10013

Phone: 212.242.6162 | Fax: 212.229.2970


Written permission of the publisher must be obtainedbefore any of the contents of this newspaper, in whole or in part, can be reproduced or redistributed.