Volume 20, Number 31 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 14 - 20, 2007

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E.P.A. hasn’t gotten the lead out Downtown, critics say

By Julie Shapiro

Lingering contamination from 9/11 is not a problem, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said after releasing data showing unsafe levels of lead in nine buildings near the World Trade Center.

The results came from the E.P.A.’s widely-criticized Lower Manhattan Test and Clean Program, which samples residential spaces on a voluntary basis. The data includes 53 individual apartments and nine building lobbies within 1,500 feet of ground zero. Seventy-one of 904 dust samples had unsafe levels of lead and three dust samples out of 1,142, all from one apartment, had unsafe levels of asbestos.

There is no identifier for W.T.C. toxins so the E.P.A. does not know whether the contamination is related to 9/11.

“The contaminants [are] associated with World Trade Center dust, but they’re also associated with a lot of other things,” said Mary Mears, spokesperson for E.P.A. “We can’t say, ‘That’s World Trade Center and that’s not.’”

Lead is common in urban environments, from dirt and lead-based paint in old buildings, Mears said. “Most of the times we found lead, we also found lead-based paint in the area,” she added.

“It’s positive that we’re not finding a lot of contamination,” Mears said. “If there was a real pervasive problem, we’d be seeing it.”

At least one of the nine buildings had multiple discoveries of unsafe lead levels, but Mears, repeating the E.P.A.’s previous privacy concerns, said the agency could not warn residents living in those buildings that they were near potentially hazardous conditions. She refused to say on which Lower Manhattan streets the buildings were located. She said the E.P.A. will be cleaning any areas where they found unsafe substances.

The tests did not find any asbestos or man-made vitreous fibers in the air and did not find the fibers or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — chemicals formed from burning — in dust samples.

U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, one of the leading critics of the E.P.A.’s 9/11 response, denounced the program.

“We remain extremely concerned about the limited and flawed nature of the E.P.A. Test and Clean Program,” Nadler said in a statement. “We’re still looking for a comprehensive, scientifically based program.”

After residents and elected officials condemned the methods and analysis of the first Test and Clean Program, a panel convened to advise the E.P.A. The W.T.C. Expert Technical Review Panel made a laundry list of suggestions, but the E.P.A. disbanded the panel and continued with the testing. These are the first results released since then.

Former panel members and Downtown residents criticized the results, saying the tests are not set up to find anything and do not prove Lower Manhattan is safe.

“No agency has provided any science-based assurance that any building in Lower Manhattan is cleared of 9/11 contaminants,” said Kimberly Flynn, head of 9/11 Environmental Action. “There still needs to be a proper cleanup of the [Downtown] area.”

Flynn criticized E.P.A.’s “sleight of hand” in implying that contamination is not from the World Trade Center.

“You cannot draw any conclusions [from E.P.A.’s results],” said Dave Newman, industrial hygienist at New York City Occupational Safety and Health. Newman, a member of the Expert Review Panel, sees the data “not as a reflection of what’s out there in the real world, but more as a reflection of the deficiency in methodologies.”

One problem is that the E.P.A. study focuses only on residential buildings, and excludes schools, hospitals and businesses, Newman said. The results, therefore, do not represent Lower Manhattan buildings in general. Also, since tenants and building owners enroll in the program by choice, the results are not even representative of all residential buildings, Newman said.

Several panel members also criticized the E.P.A.’s benchmarks for contamination. The E.P.A. tested two types of spaces: accessible, such as a living room floor, and infrequently accessed, such as behind a refrigerator. The cleanliness standards are stricter for accessible spaces than infrequently accessed ones, which means that an amount of lead that would trigger a cleanup if found on the kitchen counter would not raise alarm if found under a bed.

The E.P.A.’s testing methods “are heavily skewed toward testing areas we would expect to be clean, while ignoring areas that would still contain contamination,” said Micki Siegel de Hernandez, health and safety director for Communications Workers of America and a member of the panel. “The plan was a sham.”

For Jo Polett, a Tribeca resident, the E.P.A. data brought back memories of its first Test and Clean Program. In 2003, the E.P.A. found five times a safe amount of lead in her 105 Duane St. apartment.

Her building, constructed in the late 1980s, contained no lead paint, but four of the eight apartments tested had high levels of lead. To Polett, the message was clear: The contamination in her building is from 9/11. But the E.P.A. tried to link the lead to preexisting conditions, she said.

“The data is as good as your sampling and analytical methods,” Polett said. “The results are meaningless.”

Polett criticized the E.P.A. for not testing ventilation systems.

“There is no such thing as an inaccessible surface,” she said. “People access these surfaces. Airflow accesses these surfaces.”

In September, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which investigates and oversees federal programs, released a report critical of the Test and Clean Program. The E.P.A.’s decision not to incorporate some of the expert panel’s recommendations “may limit the overall effectiveness of this program,” the report states.

All 10 of the panel members who spoke to the G.A.O. “believe that EPA’s second program is not responsive to the concerns of residents and workers impacted by the collapse of the W.T.C. towers,” according to the report.

The G.A.O. also echoed the panel’s concern about the E.P.A.’s plan for responding to contamination after future disasters.

“E.P.A. has not developed protocols on how and when to collect data to determine the extent of indoor contamination,” the report states.

After hearing the test results, former panel members reaffirmed their concern about future disasters.

“If there were ever to be another disaster, we hope that the people in charge do proper air monitoring and testing much earlier on, in order to protect people who live and work in our community,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, chairperson of the C.B. 1 World Trade Center committee. Hughes, who served on the panel, said the current Test and Clean Program is “too little, too late.”

Siegel de Hernandez, another panel member, wants to see congressional hearings on the E.P.A.’s program, and said a real cleanup is still necessary.

“This was their way of being able to walk away from a problem they never wanted to deal with, while pretending it was science,” Siegel de Hernandez said. “The E.P.A. feels they’ve closed the book, but none of us feel that way.”

The E.P.A. plans to extend the tests to three progressively broader concentric circles surrounding the W.T.C. and complete those tests by the end of next year. The recently released results represent the first two geographic rings tested by the agency. The last tests will extend to Canal St.

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