Volume 16 • Issue 20 | October 14 - 20, 2003


Inexcusable delays and indifference at the E.P.A.

Jo Polett has no science degree, does not work for the government and has no more obligation to try and protect the public than other citizens living near her in Tribeca or anywhere else in America. If Environmental Protection Agency officials had just a fraction of her conscience, Lower Manhattan residents would likely be able to feel better about their long-term health prospects.

Polett told us this week that the E.P.A. found five times what is believed to be a safe level of lead in her apartment as a result of the collapse of the World Trade Center.

Fortunately, the lead levels dropped to acceptable levels after E.P.A. contractors cleaned her apartment in her 480-unit building at 105 Duane St. But she knows not all of her neighbors signed up for the cleanup program and some have children who are more vulnerable to lead poisoning.

She wonders whether she should warn her neighbors to get their apartments checked on their own since the E.P.A. will no longer test and clean apartments in Lower Manhattan.

The E.P.A., over the last year, has never given us the slightest hint that they care much about people who could be exposing themselves to 9/11-related health risks without knowing it. Unlike Polett, the E.P.A. gets our tax money under the assumption — that by all appearances seems to be false — that the agency has some concern for the public’s health and will spend our money accordingly.

This week, Cate Jenkins, an E.P.A. whistle-blowing scientist, said she couldn’t think of a credible explanation as to why her colleagues have not released the results of the wipe tests for chemicals like lead and mercury. Spokesperson Mary Mears said part of the delay is to consult with agency attorneys.

Since that takes precedence, we have our own question for the E.P.A. legal office: Is there any possible way the United States could defend itself against a lawsuit by the family of a Downtown resident who died from lead exposure and who was never told by the E.P.A. that the agency knew other apartments in the building had dangerous levels of lead?

The evidence suggests that most Downtowners are not at risk as a result of the Sept. 11 attack, but the E.P.A., through its incompetence and indifference has done little to reassure us. An independent investigation into the agency revealed that White House officials pressured the E.P.A., to, as the Brits might say, “sex down” possible Downtown health risks in 2001.  Christie Whitman, then the E.P.A. administrator, claimed the air was safe to breath before she had the evidence to make the assertion, according to the E.P.A.’s inspector general’s report. We applaud Sen. Hillary Clinton for holding up the confirmation of Whitman’s replacement until the E.P.A. comes clean on its bungled job in Lower Manhattan.

The air near, but not at the W.T.C., was relatively safe to breath several weeks after the attack, according to independent tests, and the E.P.A. did warn residents about the potential dangers from E.P.A. dust in 2001. But officials did not take responsibility for testing and cleaning apartments until a year later and now that the results are in, the E.P.A. is too busy talking to lawyers to dole out life and death information to Downtowners.

It appears that only a small number of the sample apartments tested for lead showed dangerous levels, but that does not mean people should be walking in an information cloud two years after the attack.

The E.P.A. should expedite the release of the wipe tests and present it in a form so they can be independently verified by other scientists. We renew our call for the E.P.A. to warn people who live in buildings where asbestos, lead or other chemicals were found.

Maybe agency officials should keep in mind one question: What would Jo Polett do if she were running E.P.A.?


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