Volume 16 • Issue 51 | May 14 - 20, 2004

E.P.A. panel considers ways to connect remaining dust to 9/11

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Did the collapse of the World Trade Center produce dust with a particular imprint that distinguishes its origins beyond a doubt, and if so, what are its defining characteristics?

That was one of the issues tackled during a May 12 conference call among experts charged with reviewing the Environmental Protection Agency’s response to the World Trade Center disaster. The panel held the two-hour telephone conference to prepare for its next public meeting, to be held on May 24 in Lower Manhattan.

At its last public meeting on April 12, the 17-member panel of government and independent experts moved away from its initial plan to retest only those Lower Manhattan apartments that were originally cleaned as part of the E.P.A. voluntary residential cleanup, which tested solely for asbestos in most apartments. Discussion continued on Wednesday about which buildings to test and what toxins to sample to determine what contamination, if any, remains from Sept. 11, 2001.

Most of the toxins the E.P.A. identified as potentially hazardous products of the World Trade Center collapse can’t be traced uniquely to the disaster and are thus of limited value in determining the extent of the remaining contamination, said Morton Lippmann, a panelist and professor of environmental medicine at New York University School of Medicine. For example, lead is prevalent in urban environments, so it would be difficult to say with certainty that any lead found in Lower Manhattan came from the trade center collapse.

“I think we need a signature,” said Greg Meeker, a panelist and research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, Co., referring to a fingerprint of sorts that would identify World Trade Center dust.

Meeker said that the chemical makeup of W.T.C. dust, while not unique to the Twin Towers, was nonetheless specific enough to indicate its likely origins. But more studies were needed before the so-called signature could be used with scientific certainty, Meeker added.

Paul Gilman, chairperson of the panel and an assistant administrator of the E.P.A., asked Meeker, Lippmann and another panelist to investigate the work that has already been done in identifying a fingerprint for W.T.C. dust and the steps needed to provide a valid scientific method for employing such a fingerprint, and to report their findings at the May 24 meeting.

The expert panel was formed largely to restore public trust in the E.P.A. response to 9/11, after a cleanup that some Downtowners found to be poorly designed and run, and an independent inspector general report released last August that judged the E.P.A. acted without enough evidence when it declared the air Downtown safe to breathe one week after 9/11. Contamination testing of Lower Manhattan buildings is set to begin this summer, and the panel has two years to complete its analysis of how far the World Trade Center dust plume traveled and how to best track the health consequences of the disaster.

Since the panel’s formation in March, members have been very conscious of their need to earn public support.

“I think the community has problems with the way the E.P.A. does things,” Lippmann said, suggesting that the agency could do a better job of explaining scientific concepts in layman’s terms.

The panel did not reach any conclusions during its May 12 call about which buildings should be tested for 9/11 contamination. There are 2,200 buildings below Canal St., said Dennis Santella, an E.P.A. employee. To determine which of these should be tested for lingering toxins, panelists discussed classifying the buildings by categories including use, size, type of ventilation and geographic proximity to the trade center site.

While community members have pressed for testing outside the E.P.A.’s original northern boundary of Canal, Pike and Allen Sts., panelists did not commit to testing in Brooklyn or other areas where the dust plume traveled. Paul Lioy, a panelist and professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School of New Jersey, said that testing could start south of Canal St. and perhaps move northward if testing results suggest such a move. He also said the panel should be mindful of its time constraints and accelerate the process.

“Let’s let the data tell us what’s happening,” Lioy said.

The third meeting of the World Trade Center Expert Technical Review Panel will be held on May 24, 2004, from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, in the Saval Auditorium of St. John’s University, 101 Murray St., between Greenwich St. and the West Side Highway.

On-site registration will begin at 9:00 a.m. A government-issued identification such as a driver’s license is required for entry. For more information, go to www.epa.gov/wtc/panel or call 800-803-2833.


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