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NY Residents Worry About Air Quality - 2001-10-28

More than six weeks after the September 11 terrorist attack on New York, fires are still smoldering under the debris of the former World Trade Center complex. The continuing smoke is worrying some city residents about the quality of the air they are breathing.

New Yorkers appear to have accepted the scream of sirens on the ground and the thump of helicopters overhead as part of daily life. But a random sampling of people who work or live in lower Manhattan indicates they are less tolerant of the odor created by the fires at the so-called Ground Zero.

Jose Reyes works in a photography shop just a few streets away. "It smells bad, right? They are supposed to do something about it," he says. "Put liquid or whatever. They throw water in the street. That is not enough."

Depending upon the direction of the wind, the smell of smoke and burning materials wafts across various parts of New York. On still days, it settles over the downtown financial district, entering into the air vents of many buildings. Robin Francis, who works in the area, says the odor is present all the time in lower Manhattan. "It varies," she notes. "But what people do not realize is we are in war zone down here. I guess there is methane gas still burning underneath the Trade towers. I have allergies so it makes my eyes itch. I get off the subway fairly near Broadway so I know when it is burning."

City officials have tried to reassure New Yorkers, ordering a series of on-going tests to monitor air quality. Patrick Kinney specializes in the effects of air quality on respiratory systems at Columbia University's School of Public Health. He says the tests show there are no toxic pollutants, like asbestos, tainting the quality of air. "The data that has been collected so far do not show concentrations of pollutants that are of concern," adds Professor Kinney. "However, not all of the pollutants that you might want to look at have been monitored or, at least, reported yet. So the database is incomplete. Based on what we know so far, there is no cause for alarm."

But Robin Francis is not convinced. "The content of the air may be fine, but it is a psychological and physical drain smelling smoke all day during the week, and no one knows what the long-term effects will be," she says.

Some people, like postal worker Jouvin Lamar, question whether the area should have been re-opened for business so soon. He wears a facemask during much of his workday downtown. "They want to restore back lower Manhattan," he says. "So, of course, they are going to say it is okay to try to get tourists and everybody back to normal life. But we cannot go back to our normal life on a day to day basis smelling it. On top of that, we do not even know what is in the air."

But Professor Kinney says it is unlikely that new data will show any pollutants that put people at risk. "I do not think it was unwise to have people start repopulating the area," he says. "I think that our noses are very sensitive and we pick up a lot of things that are not necessarily toxic. I think it is good to be careful, to minimize exposure as much as possible. For the general public, as long as we are careful, I think the risks are quite low."

More than anything, Professor Kinney says, the smell may be an additional stress to people working close to the site of the tragedy.

But the smoky air did not stop Yankee baseball fans from attending a pep rally at City Hall, just a few streets away from Ground Zero. For this fan, it will take a lot more than an unpleasant odor to keep her from saluting the Yankees as they head into their fourth consecutive World Series. "I still can smell it," she says. "I was here about a week or two ago and it was smelling like this. It is still there. Nothing will stop me from the Yankees."

Hundreds of New Yorkers lined up to attend the rally, going through lengthy security checks. The wait was worth it, they said, because the Yankees have given New York something to cheer about after six weeks of heartache. Red, white, and blue banners replaced the purple and black of mourning that have draped City hall since September 11.