On May 8, 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a comprehensive plan to ensure that apartments surrounding Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan are properly cleaned. The plan - which calls for government funded cleaning and asbestos testing - represents a major change in the city's previous policy. Tenant advocates and local politicians are cautiously enthusiastic about the new plan, and still hope for further changes.
Prior to May 8, downtown shareholders and owners were responsible for hiring their own cleaning contractors or scouring their own apartments of the debris and particulate matter that coated everything after the terrorist attacks. Under the new plan, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will provide a grant to New York City to pay for certified contractors to cleanup both occupied and unoccupied buildings in the area south of Canal Street and the Manhattan Bridge approach from river to river. The grant will also cover follow-up asbestos testing of indoor air, the establishment of a hotline to provide information and take cleaning requests, and make high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter vacuums available.
In the days following the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, recovery responsibilities were divided among various city, state and federal agencies. The EPA was asked to monitor and clean outside air and supervise the disposal of hazardous materials from the site. According to EPA spokesperson Mary Mears, the city wanted to retain responsibility for re-inhabiting the buildings. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection took charge of giving landlords specific directions for building cleanup. The NYC Department of Health (DOH) disseminated information on health risks and cleanup methods. Apartment and building owners were stuck with footing the bills, which sometimes topped $30,000.
For many residents - particularly those with little or no insurance - this meant wading through thick piles of ashes containing any number of hazardous, possibly toxic materials. For every layer of dust that was wiped clean, two more layers wafted in from the recovery effort going on at Ground Zero, and thin surgical masks did little to protect the wearers. Downtown residents complained in a DOH-sponsored survey that they were experiencing coughs, tearing eyes, and skin problems, and more than 50 percent of respondents reported experiencing some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The largest fear is from possible exposure to asbestos fibers, known to cause scarring of the lungs and cancer. The other known contaminant in the air around Ground Zero is fiberglass. Although fiberglass is classified as a possible carcinogen, the DOH says that long-term health effects are not known. No one can say how much exposure residents have gotten while cleaning up.