"OSHA regulates exposure to fiberglass, but they didn't test for it at the World Trade Center (WTC) site - I think that's egregious," says Cate Jenkins, Ph.D., a senior chemist at the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Hazardous Waste Division. "Fiberglass is a common building material and a known carcinogen."
Jenkins' criticism of EPA's monitoring and cleanup of asbestos at the WTC site was the focus of Parts I & II of this series. But in a recent interview, the EPA gadfly was also not shy about criticizing OSHA's role in protecting workers from other contaminants in the area surrounding what used to be the WTC.
There is mounting clinical evidence that those who have worked in the WTC area are getting sick. Because symptoms from asbestos exposure do not generally surface for many years, Jenkins is not alone in believing that other contaminants must be causing the problems.
"We've seen at least 100 patients," reveals Dr. Stephen Levin, medical director of New York City's nationally renowned Mt. Sinai Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine. "People who were caught in the cloud or who did rescue and recovery work are coming to us with a variety of symptoms."
The symptoms include new adult onset of asthma, sinusitis, and chemical bronchitis.
"We believe this is due to intense exposure of high concentrations of airborne irritants," says Levin, "ranging from fiberglass to soot particulates, combustion gases and ongoing fires."
OSHA has taken hundreds of samples for a number of hazards besides asbestos, including carbon monoxide, total dust, silica, mercury, and dioxins--but not fiberglass. All test results are regularly updated and posted on OSHA's Web site, and except for a handful of cases, the results are below OSHA's permissible exposure levels (PELs).
In a written response e-mailed to Occupational Hazards' Washington office, OSHA commented, "Although the agency has no specific workplace exposure standard for synthetic mineral fibers, OSHA did evaluate more than 700 samples for total fibers at the World Trade Center disaster site. In every case, we found worker exposure levels below a fiberglass exposure guideline from ACGIH (American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, a consensus organization of health professionals), that is similar to a voluntary exposure guideline for fiberglass developed by three industry associations and supported by OSHA in 1999."
"But workers need to realize that in many cases these PELs are not protective enough," Jenkins says. She and OSHA agree on one point: both urge anyone working at the site to wear proper personal protective equipment at all times.
Jenkins argues that asbestos is a far greater health hazard at the WTC and in surrounding buildings than either EPA or OSHA acknowledge, and she emphasizes that fiberglass compounds the risk of asbestos exposure. Jenkins believes that the ongoing cleanup and removal of asbestos inside surrounding buildings is not only ineffective, but also dangerous, placing workers and residents at risk.
"It's like washing one finger on a dirty hand," she says. "It's a mess up there, nothing but chaos."
But Jenkins is not content to point out problems. She believes she has a solution: declaring the WTC area a Superfund site. Doing this, she believes, would mean the government could require that asbestos be removed properly and safely.
Superfund status would also solve the problem of who is to pay for the cleanup effort. One reason for the current haphazard nature of asbestos removal, according to Jenkins, is the high cost of hiring professionals to do the job correctly, a cost many property owners are reluctant to incur. Under Superfund, the government picks up the cleanup tab.
Despite the harsh criticism she has leveled at her own agency in a series of memos beginning last November, Jenkins said she does not fear she will lose her job.
"All [EPA] management has to do is say, 'Stop,' and they haven't." She says that as an EPA official, speaking out about lapses in the agency's WTC effort does not require courage, just plenty of hard work.
As for OSHA, this is what the agency had to say about its efforts at the World Trade Center site: "Since the Sept. 11 disaster, OSHA has been actively working to ensure the health and safety of workers at the site. That is why we devoted significant agency resources, rotating more than 800 federal and state staffers into New York City since Sept. 11, providing round-the-clock safety and health monitoring. We have taken nearly 4,000 bulk and air samples for asbestos, silica, lead and other metals, carbon monoxide, noise and numerous organic and inorganic compounds to help in risk assessment and selection of appropriate respiratory protection for workers. We have also distributed 113,000 respirators and shown rescue and construction workers at the site how to use them."
At press time, EPA had not responded to a request that it comment on Jenkins' rebuke for what it has done, and what it has failed to do.
For more information about Cate Jenkins' criticism of EPA, go to www.nycosh.org.
(For more information, see Parts I and II of this series: "Are EPA's Monitoring and Cleanup Efforts at WTC Effective?" and "EPA Official: Lower Manhattan Should Be a Superfund Site.")