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Midland Beach’s Dust Plume a Health Hazard to area Residents and Workers

November 8, 2012 Comments off

These sanitation workers, removing rubbish and debris on November 4th had no masks to protect their lungs from potentially harmful dust.

The removal of debris from homes is certainly welcome to the residents whose homes had to be gutted after Hurricane Sandy immersed entire basements and even engulfed the first floors with seawater. The risk of physical harm from improper removal of hazardous materials, however, is a real and serious threat the local government authorities appear to be doing absolutely nothing about, even though it is aware of the potential risks to people’s health.

There is, first of all, the risk to of exposure to gypsum, crystalline silica (connected with silicosis) and mica (connected with pneumoconiosisa), common materials used in the construction of drywall used to cover walls in the majority of American homes. Each of these materials is a potential hazard if inhaled.

Then there is the problem of lead paint, used in many homes before the 1970’s. A number of the homes in the Midland Beach area were constructed when lead paint was still in use, and it is reasonable to assume that at least some of them had lead paint on their walls or ceilings when Sandy struck. With the mass removal of drywall and other building materials from these homes – literally just ripped out of the homes and dumped on the lawn, sidewalk and street – one has to wonder at the level of contaminants are being released into the air. It is not a question of if there are contaminants, but one of how much toxic materials are being released. As drywall is broken apart, the paint on it can crumble and turn to dust, which is easily¬†¬† released into the air people have to breathe.

These marines have no visible respiratory protection, putting them to potentially toxic dust.

In addition, a good number of the people removing the materials are not trained professionals, but homeowners, military personnel and volunteers eager to help those in need. Of the dozens upon dozens of residents our journalists observed removing debris in their walks through the Midland Beach area, at least a 20% had no masks at all, while the majority wore cheap white masks that can be purchased in any hardware shop. Unfortunately these masks offer insufficient protection from dust particles. Less than a pitiful handful were observed wearing masks that could even be considered appropriate for such an environment, which might not have been enough to deal with the dust cloud on November 6th that pervaded the air like an infectious fog.

Even those who are not directly involved in the removal of debris are at risk, such as people passing by, drivers or even volunteers helping distribute supplies. First responders are at risk as well. Virtually none of the police, military or Red Cross workers that our journalists observed had respirators or masks on of any sort (there were a few Red Cross workers with inadequate masks). Marines sent to Staten Island, for example, were photographed by the NY Post removing debris without any respiratory protection. In the same news report sanitation workers have on masks, though they appear to be the inappropriate white masks many residents were using. Even worse, on Sunday one of our reporters saw numerous sanitation crews removing debris and rubbish with no masks at all.

In a pamphlet produced by the New York State Health Department for Environmental Health for homeowners entitled “What Homeowners Need to Know about Lead Paint,it recommends they keep pregnant women and children away from chipped paint or dust, and that most work on lead paint- as directed by federal law – should done by EPA-certified contractors (2502 1/2003). There certainty are professionals doing work in the Midland Beach area, but there are some who have taken it upon themselves to remove debris on their own.

In addition to the aforementioned, there is the concern about asbestos in the air. In an article dealing with this very topic, the Huffington Post highlighted the dangers residents may be facing in an article published on November 3rd (here). It cited Linda Reinstein¬† of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Association who said, “The collateral damage will be untold for decades,” which is sometimes the length of time exposure can lead to sickness. And since no amount of asbestos exposure is considered safe, it is difficult to know how much exposure will cause cancer. What doctors do agree on, though, is that is vital to limit exposure to asbestos as much as possible. How can residents, workers and people passing through the area on their way to work avoid airborne dust particles that may include asbestos, lead, gypsum, silicia or other toxic dust? What actions have the city, state and federal agencies taken to warn people on Staten Island of the potential hazards? Based on what our journalists saw last week and especially on Wednesday afternoon with a construction vehicle crushing debris and drywall and releasing all sorts of dust into the air, it would appear the answer is absolutely nothing. After so many frist responders and residents in the World Trade Centre area after September 11, 2001 were exposed to toxic dust and the many possibly related deaths and sicknesses (some estimate 1000 deaths), what excuse is there on the part of the authorities not to take the necessary precautions to safeguard the population?

The longer large amounts of dust are released into the air – such as on Wednesday – people’s health is going to be at risk, to say nothing of those removing debris or touching harmful material. It is difficult to see how terrible air quality is in itself not a serious hazard to people’s health. One of our journalists, for example, who visited the area on Wednesday for just a few minutes is already experiencing respiratory problems, including irritation, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. There was nothing the authorities could do to stop Hurricane Sandy. But there are many things the authorities could have done to prevent this dust cloud, and there are things they can do to prevent it from coming back as removal work continues. This is entirely preventible, but the lessons of 9/11/01 at ground zero and the Staten Island landfill seem to be forgotten. The residents, workers and volunteers will bear the brunt of any toxic dust in the years to come, and can rest assured that their elected officials did little to prevent them and their children from being exposed to possible health hazards in the air.

Civis Journal