After nearly four years, the EPA announced on November 29 that it will begin testing of residential and commercial spaces which may have been exposed to environmental toxins following the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade centers. In a much-maligned plan by local residents and even EPA panel members, testing of structures in lower Manhattan will begin in early 2006. The area within borders between Canal street to the north and west of Pike and Allen Streets will be evaluated for a number of substances which could pose a risk to residents, including asbestos. Testing will be done on a voluntary basis.
Asbestos was used for insulation in the north tower of the World Trade center through the 40th floor. As a result of the collapse of the buildings, an enormous amount of debris containing asbestos was released into the air. In the week following the disaster, New Yorkers were told that the air was safe to breathe; yet were also instructed to clean dust carefully and avoid inhalation. The EPA later concluded that the announcement that the air was not dangerous was premature. Because of the prolonged period of time before disease manifests, it will be years before the true toll of asbestos exposure surrounding Ground Zero will be revealed.
While the plan calls for an expenditure of $7 million, those who oppose the plan feel it is inadequate. Concerned residents argued at a meeting at the Alexander Hamilton US customs house on December 13 that the testing is flawed because of it’s tightly limited geographical area, questionable methodology and voluntary nature. Distrust of the government agency stems from assurances by former EPA Administrator Christine Todd-Whitman that the air surrounding the site of the terrorist attack was safe to breathe in the days after the collapse. Timothy Oppelt, Chair of the EPA technical panel investigating the issue was quoted in NY Newsday as feeling that the plan “incorporates the best science available today.” (12/13/05).
A review of some of the comments of the panelists as posted on the EPA website confirmed that there are many questions about the completeness of the EPA plan. Although the area to be tested is limited to lower Manhattan south of Canal Street, dust and debris spread to a far wider area, into Brooklyn and beyond. Other concerns include the testing methodology planned.
Most published research on asbestos related illnesses related to long-term exposure, rather than a single extreme exposure as experienced after the WTC collapse. Mesothelioma is most often found in asbestos workers following years of work-place exposure. The disease has been found, however, in worker’s spouses, presumably as a result of handling dust ridden work garments. Little data on single exposure is available, and leaves many questions unanswered.
This information, and the experience of the residents of the vermiculite-mining town of Libby, Montana point to a potentially serious problem in lower Manhattan. Blanketed by debris on every surface, with visibility limited to just a few feet in the days after the attack, the extreme nature of exposure following 9/11 is unprecedented.

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