The Air Down There

David Dallow wants to go home, but every time he goes back he gets a sore throat, a headache, and a rash. “At first I thought it was psychosomatic,” says the 31-year-old trader, whose Battery Park City apartment is a football field away from the World Trade Center site. “We have our landlord doing air tests, but who’s going to trust a landlord with 1,700 vacant apartments?”

Not satisfied with the EPA’s daily air monitoring, landlords, tenants, schools, and politicians are rushing in, scientists in tow, to test the soot and acrid plume of smoke from still-smoldering ground zero. The results only fuel the unease. “A friend had the ash on her windowsill tested. It was 25 percent glass,” says one resident.

While we know what was vaporized on September 11 – including seven huge air-conditioning compressors filled with freon and miles of PVC cable, which when burned becomes the carcinogen dioxin – no one really knows what’s left in the air now. There’s an explanation for every theory: If, like a lot of people, you think the air smells like New Car Smell, that could be because pulverized or still-burning plastics are releasing vinyl chloride, which may cause brain cancer. “I would be the first to concede that there’s not a methodology on earth to find absolutely everything that’s in there,” admits Mark Maddaloni, a toxicologist for the EPA who maintains that so far, testing reveals safe levels of toxic substances.

Panic buttons were pressed last week when a company called HP Environmental reported higher asbestos levels than the EPA, which had declared most of Battery Park City safe. Turns out HP had included tiny asbestos particles, which the EPA and many doctors don’t consider dangerous. Others, like Philip Landrigan of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, say just the opposite: “It’s been substantiated by 30 or 40 years of research that the smaller fibers are the ones that can penetrate most deeply into the lungs.”

So, who to believe? HP showed its results to downtown neighbors, but the Board of Ed chose to reopen Stuyvesant High School anyway. “I’m very concerned,” says Stuyvesant parents’ association president Marilena Christodoulou. “We’re insisting on daily monitoring – not just for asbestos but for lead and fiberglass.”

Perhaps the only thing experts do agree on is that the air by ground zero is ever-changing. “It’s dynamic – not like ground water with one contaminant,” acknowledges Maddaloni. “It depends on what’s burning at the site on a particular day.”

That’s discouraging news for neighbors awaiting a clean bill of health. “If they can convince me that it’s completely safe, then I’ll move back in a heartbeat,” says Dallow. “I’m not Oliver Stone. I’m not a conspiracy theorist. But I want someone I trust.”

The Air Down There