By LAURIE CHERENFANT
The waters of Hurricane Sandy long ago receded and the debris is mostly cleaned up, but many people continue to suffer from related health problems months later.
“We know that in the short term, people have had trouble breathing,” Michael Seilback, the vice-president of public policy and communications at the American Lung Association, said. “The ‘Sandy cough,’ as it was known, led people to have trouble breathing when outside.”
Demolition, debris handling, truck traffic and vehicle emissions related to the cleanup and rebuilding have all contributed to air pollution. Temporary living conditions were unhealthy in some cases. And mold that infested flood-damaged buildings has posed a hazard to many people.
Temporary shelters for those displaced from the storm contributed to respiratory infections due to the prolonged limited space living arrangement. Close quarters, without access to a shower, will cause infections or a cold to develop and spread among people who stay within the small space for even a short period of time, Seilback said.
“At the time of the flood, during the acute phase, people were exposed to mold,” said Dr. Hylton Lightman, a pediatric asthma and allergy specialist of Total Family Care Clinic in Far Rockaway. “There was a surge of bronchospasm and wheezing.”
Sewage and debris can cause toxic fumes which people inhale, Lightman explained. “The mold is usually hidden in the sheet rock and then it decays causing toxic fumes,” said Lightman, whose clinic was destroyed by the storm but quickly rebuilt. “Homeowners should therefore move out or get demolition started.”
After the storm, there was much debris to be disposed of in order to start the rebuilding process. To clear the debris, New York State issued a letter stating that it would allow open burning to occur, although this practice is normally illegal, as long as it does not affect the air quality. Under the conditions of the variance, the burning was to start in December and last until mid-April.
In November, environmental and public health groups joined together in calling Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to reject the plan which would allow the burning of wood and other debris from Hurricane Sandy. “Wood smoke alone contains 26 pollutants specified by the Clean Air Act as hazardous,” the groups said in a statement the American Lung Association issued. “The gases that are produced can irritate the eyes, skin and respiratory tract, impair lung function and affect vital organs.”
“Open burning is a bad idea,” Laura Haight, the senior environmental associate of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said. “It causes a lot of health issues such as lung problems.”
Environmental challenges multiplied in the days after the storm. After the water recedes and everything begins to dry, moisture is left over and it mixes with bacteria forming mold, Seilback said. Mold was a big problem in many areas the storm flooded. Seilback said that if the mold is not remediated, lung problems arise, and if people chose to not rebuild or clean up right away, the prolonged exposure to pollutants such as mold or dust would worsen their health.
“A lot of people suffered from pneumonia and were coming into the emergency department, as well as the out-patient clinic, complaining of asthma,” said Penelope Chin, the director of public relations at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital. “There was a 16 percent increase of overall in-patient and out-patient admission related to respiratory problems.”
Once the State Department of Environmental Conservation passed a variance allowing the burning of debris, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers hired a contractor to begin the burning, which the Army Corps supervised.
The DEC then installed two “air curtain burners” in Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, where the burning took place. The burners were designed to trap fine particles and prevent them from being released in the air. In the air monitoring report released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, particle pollution exceeded normal limits on four different occasions between Jan. 9 and Feb. 5. Numbers that exceeded the normal of 35 micrograms per meter squared during 24-hour surveillance periods were highlighted in red.
“The state wrote a letter saying that they would stop the burning if they found that it affected the air quality,” Haight said. As a result of the repeated problems of smoke and high levels of air pollution, New York City decided to suspend the burning of the debris that remained after Sandy in February, two months earlier than they had originally planned.
Barbara Warren, the executive director of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, said she believes that Hurricane Sandy was an event that the state has been waiting for. “It was an excuse to build an incinerator,” Warren said. “It costs so much to export garbage, but burning it is one-fourth to one-fifth of the cost.”
Although the hurricane may have opened a portal for the city to erect an incinerator, this is not the first time it has tried to do so. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was supposed to be the home of a trash incinerator in the early 1990s but neighbors of the area as well as environmental groups came together to slow down the process and eventually help kill the project from ever entering into the city’s solid waste management plan.
“The main concerns were the emissions,” Warren said speaking about the Floyd Bennett incinerators. “The city promised that they were only going to burn clean wood, but that’s impossible.”
One major concern of the burning was the release of dioxin in the air. Dioxin is a highly toxic compound that degrades in the environment once it is released. Even a small quantity of dioxin is toxic. “It’s an expensive test and there is no way the city will spend so much to test for this,” Warren said.
The two air curtain burners at Floyd Bennett Field were supposed to recapture and incinerate particles the burning releases.
“The air curtain burners use controlled burning technology so that emissions were minimized,” said Emily DeSantis, the director of public information of the DEC. “Some emissions might have occurred since it is impossible to attain 100 percent control. The ash that was derived from the burn has been shipped offsite for landfill disposal,” she said. “[Only] one of [the air curtain burners] has been removed from the location and the other one will be removed soon.”
Seilback said that cold weather can trigger asthma in asthma patients. But, he said, if the storm occurred during the summer months, the air quality would have been worse because it would have formed ozone. “For ozone to form there must be heat,” Seilback said.
If there were another storm, people with a pre-existing condition of a respiratory illness would likely develop a chronic cough, Lightman said. “The pre-disposition will exacerbate the long-term effects,” he said. “It will most likely be similar to 9/11.”
If there were no other alternatives to the burning, the environmental groups said, they would not have raised attention to government officials about the harm being done to the air quality. But Haight says that the wood could have been recycled and used as a stabilizer for fuel disposal, and that there is currently a “strong market for wood chips which can be used for garden mulch.”
The American Lung Association’s Air Quality Report of 2013 covers the air quality between 2009 and 2011.
“It will be sometime to see if Hurricane Sandy will have a lasting impact,” Seilback said.
For now, only the short-term effects can be determined.
Photo: Volunteers in Long Beach remove soggy debris to avert mold. (George Armstrong/FEMA)