TESTIMONY OF ELIZABETH H. BERGER
THE UNITED STATES SENATE COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS
SUB-COMMITTEE ON CLEAN AIR, WETLANDS AND CLIMATE CHANGE
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 11, 2002
ALEXANDER HAMILTON US CUSTOMS HOUSE
NEW YORK, NY
Chairman Lieberman, Ranking Member Voinovich, Committee Members, staff members, esteemed panelists and neighbors, thank you for inviting me to tell you about the doubts, concerns and questions which have confronted those of us living and working in Lower Manhattan every day since September 11. We live in a time of deep uncertainty, but are required to make countless decisions that may affect our health and that of our children for decades to come.
I have lived south of Fulton Street for more than 19 years. My husband and I bought our first home here, brought our children home here from the hospital and helped site the local nursery school. We remember life downtown before there was a single all-night deli (it opened on Fulton Street for Op Sail in 1986), when restaurants closed early Friday evening and didn’t reopen until Monday lunch (except the Roxy Diner on John Street, which stayed open through Saturday night), when the closest supermarkets were in New Jersey. In those days, we schlepped bags on the subway and had everything else delivered, basic things most New Yorkers take for granted: dry cleaning, fresh vegetables, laundry detergent.
But we loved being downtown. We loved the huge buildings on the narrow, winding streets, we loved being close to the water and really knowing in some powerful, visceral way that Manhattan was an island. We loved the views, all the subways and weird bus lines, the scale and the feeling that we were at the center and beginning of everything.
We loved the way we and other downtown pioneers turned a business district into a community. This was especially true as we had children: the World Trade Center was our indoor play space, our mall, our theatre. It was where we flew kites, went rollerskating, learned to ride two-wheelers, and the only place to buy a decent loaf of bread. Dancers performed there, and musicians, and Ernie and Bert. My children, who are 5 and 2, spent part of every day of their lives at the World Trade Center.
This is why it is so absurd to heed the call to return to normal. There is no more normal for all of us.
I saw the first plane before it hit. Our building was evacuated. It was 8 days before we knew that it was structurally sound, another few weeks before we were assured that 1 Liberty wouldn’t topple on us. That entire time, I thought not of the apartment we might lose – of our home, the 5,000 family photos, the important papers, my grandmother’s jewelry, my children’s drawings and my husband-the-writer’s life work – but of the destruction of our community: 20 years work gone in 18 minutes.
The theme of my remarks is uncertainty, but I never doubted that we would return. We helped build downtown, and we’ll help rebuild it. It was after the City recertified our building for reoccupancy about 6 weeks after the attack, that I realized that the question was not whether by how. From a health perspective, there has been little guidance and fewer answers.
When I first returned to our apartment, I just sat down and cried. It was a mess and we spent 2 hours cleaning it – not the dust that covered everything, thinly in some places, like when the butler in English movies goes upstairs and reopens the ballroom that has been closed for 10 years, and thickly in others, like a blanket – but the French toast that had been sitting on the table since my husband and son had hurriedly left 2 weeks before. It didn’t occur to us to wear masks or take off our shoes. We just needed to straighten up. Recall, in this regard, that it is the City’s job to certify for structural integrity, not for environmental safety; I knew this, but didn’t quite get what it meant until later.
We then began the great education process which has made downtown residents experts in products and services we never knew existed: FEMA, HEPA, OSHA. We all learned fairly quickly which were the best cleaning companies and scientific testers, but what no one, to this day, can agree on is what clean means and how to measure it.
It took 8 guys in white suits and respirators 5 days to clean my apartment. But is it clean? No one tells you what to keep and what to toss. In October, I attended a panel discussion at Cooper Union featuring leaders in the field of pediatric environmental health – who knew it existed? – including, Dr. Landrigan’s associate, and among 6 doctors there were 7 opinions, ranging, in essence, from throw it in the washing machine to get out of town and don’t look back.
What’s in the stuff? Every day the air smelled different and the winds blew a different course.
We reluctantly made our own rules, divined from press reports, high school science as we remembered it and the advice of friends and neighbors. But even that was mixed. One scientist friend had his apartment tested and declared it safe for his family; the managing agent of his building, however, reported high levels of asbestos and lead. In the end, 248 stuffed animals, 8 handmade baby quilts, 5 mattresses, a trousseau’s worth of sheets and towels, a kitchenful of food and 13 leaf-and-lawn bags of toys went into our trash, but not our books, draperies and upholstered furniture or our clothes, though the bill to dry clean them industrially was $16,500 (and they all came back on individual wire hangers with individual plastic covers and individual twist-ties). We washed the walls, but didn’t repaint. Some people we know repainted, but kept their mattresses. Some people kept their stuffed animals but threw away their furniture. Some people kept what they couldn’t bear to lose and got rid of the rest. We have still not decided what to do about our floors: will stripping, sanding and resealing them contain the toxic mix of asbestos, fiberglass, concrete, human remains, heavy metals and the vague “particulates,” or just release more of it into our indoor air?
Indoor air quality is a touchy issue in our building. Converted in the late 1970’s, we have a primitive central air system that circulates air from apartment to apartment. Some people in our building hired professional cleaners. Others did it themselves, and a few locked the door and didn’t come back for a while. After the guys in the suits left, we sealed our windows, filtered our vents and bought six triple-HEPA-filtered air purifiers, which we run 24 hours a day. My clean air is making its way through the building, as is that of my less fastidious neighbors.
The same is true for outdoor air. All of our building’s systems and public spaces have been professionally cleaned, following City DEP guidelines, yet we are surrounded by Class B commercial buildings that have either not been cleaned or have been cleaned summarily. We live on the 11th floor, and see the porters, without protective gear, up on the roofs with push brooms. That stuff, too, is coming through our vents. My son’s nursery school vigorously cleaned its outdoor play space, then stopped using it. PS 234 is now back, but the kids are not allowed to run in the yard. We don’t live in a bubble. If the outdoor air’s not good enough to breathe, how can we breath it inside?
In our case, much of this debate has been academic. The mantra of real estate is “location, location, location” and, given ours, we decided that it would be foolish to return our two young children to their home until the fires went out. Although we were urged to return to normal, we were chastened by early reports of high asbestos and heavy metal readings in the Warm Zone; though we were told we were in the Financial District Zone, our building’s front door was 20 feet from the fence.
Our view was controversial. It was based on intuition, not hard science or “facts.” Our pediatrician didn’t necessarily agree. Several of our neighbors with children were back. But every time we waffled, something else would happen: the benzene plume, high asbestos readings on the debris, the fire fighters’ cough. We have only been home for three weeks. All of us are happier, but are we safe?
We’ve opened our windows, but are avoiding the park. Some of our neighbors have HEPA window screens. Some still have the duct tape. Others have put their apartments on the market.
What’s the right thing to do? Ours is a culture based on authority, and to date there has been none. We would do whatever we needed to do, if only we knew what that was. In this regard, the failure of the federal regulators to recognize that ours is a residential community and that OSHA standards simply do not apply is an outrage. Burning computers, fluorescent bulbs, copiers, electrolytic fluid and bodies . . . let me tell you, everyone downtown knows that we are the baseline of the 30-year study on what happens when worlds collide. As a parent, that is the most frightening responsibility I have ever faced.
The attack on the World Trade Center was an attack on America, and has led me to consider the whole idea of being American in a new and unironic way. What I do find ironic, however, is that the only authority I have found with respect to cleaning up the mess is William James, the father of Pragmatism, arguably the only American contribution to world philosophy. As the Harvard professor said in a lecture he gave right here in New York City in 1907, at Columbia University, “we have to live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.” I first read that as a 19-year-old college student, and thought it was pretty cynical stuff. Now, as a 41-year-old mother of two, while I’m horrified by the implications for my children’s future, I know it is the only way we can live.