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Profile: New York City Department of Health
New York City Department of Health was a participant or observer in the following events:
The New York City Department of Health issues an alert titled, “Terrorist Attack at the World Trade Center in New York City: Medical and Public Health Issues of Urgent Concern.” The notice contains various instructions for the medical community including a “Smoke and Dust Advisory” urging “individuals who have a history of heart and lung conditions or are in areas where smoke or dust is visible… to remain indoors with the windows shut and air conditioners on recirculate or turned off.” [New York City Department of Health, 9/11/2001 ; Centers for Disease Control, 9/11/2001]
The New York City Department of Health (DOH) issues its second alert since the fall of the towers. The update, titled, “Terrorist Attack at the World Trade Center in New York City: Medical and Public Health Issues of Urgent Concern,” warns the Manhattan public: “Asbestos was used in the construction of the World Trade Center. Tests performed indicate that asbestos may be present in an area marked by Worth St. to the North, Centre and Nassau Sts. to the East, and Exchange and Thames Sts. to the South.” [New York City Department of Health, 9/13/2001] The DOH report goes on to say that the “health risk posed by a single exposure of short duration is very low” and that the “risk to persons who have not been present in the affected area following the disaster is also thought to be extremely low.” [New York City Department of Health, 9/13/2001]
A fact sheet issued by the New York City Department of Health states that dust and ash from the WTC collapse contains “trace amounts of asbestos” and denies that short term exposure poses a health risk. “Based on the asbestos test results received thus far, the general public’s risk for any short or long term adverse health affects are extremely low,” the notice claims. [New York City Department of Health, 9/22/2001]
The New York City Department of Health (DOH) issues recommendations for people reoccupying commercial buildings and residences. [New York City Department of Health, 9/17/2001]
The NYC DOH advises residents not return to apartments or workplaces south of Warren Street, west of Broadway, and north of Exchange Street, until the buildings have been approved to resume tenancy by building management.
The DOH recommends that people wear dust masks upon re-entering their indoor areas. After indoor spaces have been cleaned as per instructions, it should not be necessary to wear dust masks.
The advisory recommends that residents and people working downtown clean homes and offices using “a wet rag or wet mop.”
Additional suggestions include shampooing and vacuuming carpets and upholstery with a HEPA vacuum or a normal vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter. The recommendation is made despite two studies completed for the EPA in 1993 demonstrating that HEPA vacuums do not effectively remove asbestos from carpets and upholstery (see 1993) and that vacuuming actually increases asbestos levels in the air during use (see 1993).
The advisory recommends that residents filter the air in their homes with HEPA air purifiers.
NYC DOH instructs residents to “wash heavily soiled or dusty clothing or linens twice” and remove “lint from washing machines and filters in the dryers with each laundry load.”
The recommendations say that if the “apartment is very dusty,” curtains should be washed or HEPA vacuumed. “If curtains need to be taken down, take them down slowly to keep dust from circulating in the air,” it adds.
Residents are advised to bathe pets “with running water from a hose or faucet.” The advisory adds that “their paws should be wiped to avoid tracking dust inside the home.”
The advisory also states to “[k]eep outdoor dust from entering the home” by keeping the “windows closed” and setting the “conditioner to re-circulate air (closed vents).”
The advisory repeats earlier assertions that air monitoring indicates levels of airborne asbestos fibers detected in outside air does not pose a significant threat to human health. “Based on the asbestos test results received thus far, there are no significant health risks to occupants in the affected area or to the general public,” the agency claims. The DOH’s recommendations are criticized by industrial hygienists and other experts. The advisory is criticized for failing to mention that the “dust” inside these homes could possibly contain asbestos and other toxic substances and for neglecting to inform people that stringent national statutes regulate asbestos removal, requiring professional abatement of materials or dust that contain asbestos or other hazardous substances. US statutory code does not permit unlicensed individuals or contractors, much less residents, to perform asbestos removal. [New York City Department of Health, 9/16/2001 ; New York Daily News, 11/20/2001 ; Wall Street Journal, 5/9/2002 ; Jenkins, 7/4/2003 ] In spite of these problems, the EPA website will link to the notice. [St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2/10/2002; Jenkins, 7/4/2003 ] and refer people to it who email the agency with questions about the safety of indoor air (see After November 1, 2001)
(see After November 10, 2001). Some people, however, never even learn of this advisory and—after hearing repeated assurances from officials about safe environmental conditions—clean their indoor spaces as they otherwise would under normal conditions. [Office of US Congressman Jerrold Nadler, 4/12/2002 ] Residents who do hire professional cleaners will find that their homes are still not safe. In November, American Medical News reports numerous doctors in NYC are seeing patients with respiratory conditions. “Their apartments were covered in dust, and have since been professionally cleaned” Ira Finegold, MD, chief of allergy at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, will say. “But they return, and after 20 minutes, they’re developing a raspy cough.” [American Medical News, 11/26/2001]
Monona Rossol, an industrial hygienist with Arts, Crafts, and Theater Safety, writes a press release criticizing the New York City Department of Health (DOH)‘s WTC disaster cleanup guidelines (see September 17, 2001). The press release, co-signed by the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, points out that the DOH’s guidelines could “cause people to take needless risks.” Rossol takes issue with a September 20 New York Times article which suggested that residents could adequately clean up their apartments with a $3 mask and a broom, noting that “[t]aking actions like these can damage health and may even shorten lives in the future.” She insists “methods chosen to clean homes and offices must depend on analysis of the dust and the amounts present.” [NY Environmental Law and Justice Project, 9/22/2001]
The New York City Department of Health issues a press release reiterating earlier public statements regarding the air quality in Manhattan and announces that the agency has distributed over 50,000 copies of the New York City Department of Health’s recommendations for tenant re-occupancy (see September 17, 2001). The press release quotes New York City Health Commissioner Neal L. Cohen, MD, who asserts that “there are no significant adverse health risks to the general public….” and “all residents and business owners should check with their building managers or owners to make sure that their buildings are safe, and have been certified for re-occupancy.” Residents and business owners who are permitted to return to their buildings “should follow Health Department recommendations to minimize exposure to dust and other particulate matter that may cause throat and eye irritation,” he says. The statement goes on to say that only people who live or work “within the general vicinity of the blast zone… and who have been approved to resume tenancy are advised to wear a dust mask while outside. Dust masks are not necessary for residents in other areas.” Tenants following the DEP’s cleanup guidelines should find it “unnecessary to wear a mask while inside buildings,” the statement says. [New York City Department of Health, 9/22/2001]
New York City Health Commissioner Neal L. Cohen, MD, says that despite smoky conditions in areas of Lower Manhattan, “test results from the ongoing monitoring of airborne contaminants indicate that the levels continue to be below the level of concern to public health.” [New York City Department of Health, 10/5/2001]
The New York Environmental Law and Justice Project (NYELJP) receives documents from New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the city’s Department of Health (DOH) that had been requested through the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). The request was initially denied on grounds that the documents were related to an “on-going criminal investigation.” NYELJP receives them only after an appeal and repeated demands. The documents reveal that during spot testing the DEC’s monitors became clogged with dust and were not subsequently replaced or re-set as they should have been. The documents also contain NYC DOH test results showing that some of the air monitors located in City Hall offices and other spaces in downtown Manhattan had at times been “overloaded” with dust. Instead of recalibrating the equipment and re-testing, the department simply ceased testing. Rather than inform the public about the overload dust finding, the agency listed the results as “N.A.” on its website. [Kupferman, 2003 ]
Cate Jenkins, Ph.D., a senior chemist in the EPA’s Hazardous Waste Identification Division, writes in a memo to Monona Rossol of the Arts, Crafts, and Theater Safety (ACTS) organization that the EPA is ignoring federal asbestos-abatement laws in buildings close to the World Trade Center site. The 22-year veteran of the agency says that EPA officials “effectively waived” the EPA’s “strict national regulations for removal and disposal of asbestos contaminated dust” by advising residents and commercial building managers in Lower Manhattan to follow the “extremely lenient (and arguably illegal) asbestos guidelines of the New York City Department of Health.” She notes that EPA testing discovered the presence of asbestos levels above the one percent “action level” in dust samples from at least 30 locations, some of which were located within five to seven blocks of Ground Zero. After the memo is reported in the New York Daily News, EPA officials will assert that Jenkins doesn’t understand the law (see (November 19, 2001)). [Jenkins, 11/15/2001; New York Daily News, 11/20/2001 ]
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