E.P.A. delays release of lead tests

By Elizabeth O’Brien

The Environmental Protection Agency says it is not ready to release its findings on the post-9/11 toxin tests the agency conducted in 250 Lower Manhattan apartments, although community members are concerned after obtaining what appears to be raw data from the tests.

Cate Jenkins, an E.P.A. scientist based in Washington, D.C., said that data charts circulated among Downtowners and forwarded to the Downtown Express are genuine E.P.A. wipe test results. Jenkins has closely followed and criticized the E.P.A.’s response to the World Trade Center disaster and is not a spokesperson for the federal agency.

Jenkins said she could not interpret the results without further information such as the addresses of the apartments tested. She said she could not understand why the E.P.A. is taking so long to release the results. She called on the E.P.A. to provide official results with the proper context, so that residents can understand them.

“These numbers standing by themselves cause a lot of anxiety,” Jenkins said. About the delay, she added, “I don’t see what their problem is. I don’t have that problem getting out large technical documents.”

As part of its voluntary residential cleaning program, the E.P.A. tested for asbestos and cleaned in some 4,100 apartments south of Canal, Pike, and Allen Sts. In 250 randomly selected apartments, the agency conducted tests for a wider range of contaminants, including lead, mercury, and dioxin.

The E.PA. finished conducting these wipe tests by early August, said E.P.A. spokesperson Mary Mears. Many individuals whose apartments were chosen for the detailed wipe testing have already received their results, although composite data has not been officially made public.

Mears did not deny that the raw data has been assembled.

One community member recently obtained the E.P.A. wipe test data results from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office and forwarded those results to the Downtown Express. Data charts list index numbers, contaminants and locations in apartments, such as “living room floor,” along with measurements of contaminant levels.

One chart is labeled “Exceedences,” the term the E.P.A. uses when levels of contaminants are found to be higher than the agency’s health-based benchmark. There are no building addresses or apartment numbers listed.

Three residents have told Downtown Express in recent months that they have received letters from the E.P.A. saying they had excessive levels of lead before the cleanup.

Mears said that the E.P.A. was currently determining the best way to present data in a meaningful way that does not compromise the privacy of the residents whose apartments received the wipe tests. She said the agency is consulting with its attorneys and others to have the results ready for release within a month.

In August, the E.P.A.’s Inspector General charged White House officials with pressuring the agency to downplay the possible health risks caused by the destruction of the World Trade Center.

Jo Polett, a resident of 105 Duane St., is one Downtown resident who is anxiously awaiting the comprehensive results. A month ago, Polett learned that the wipe test conducted in her apartment found pre-cleaning lead levels five times higher than the E.P.A. standard for its Lower Manhattan cleanup. After the cleanup, tests showed lead levels that meet the E.P.A. standards.

Polett is concerned that some of her neighbors might have similar lead levels without knowing it. Polett said that in her 480-unit building there are a number of families with young children, who are most susceptible to lead poisoning. The E.P.A. has said that if its tests reveal elevated levels of toxins in an apartment, it will inform the residents in the affected apartment but will not contact any other residents in the building or the maintenance staff.

This leaves residents like Polett struggling with whether to reach out to her neighbors herself, and if so, the best way to do so without alarming people.

“I’m the one that has to figure out whether I need to get this out to my building, and I don’t feel qualified,” Polett said.

Dave Newman, an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, has looked at the wipe test data circulating Downtown. Like many others, he has called for a full and timely release of the wipe test results, along with building and other information to place the data in a meaningful context.

Newman said that the E.P.A. “does have the data and we have the data. While it’s not crystal clear, there have been a number of exceedences. For the people who live and work in spaces with exceedences, they need to know and it’s unconscionable for [the E.P.A.] not to release this to the affected people.”