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Worries surface about air, water after Sandy

Workers clear debris from a flood-damaged home in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of the Rockaways Nov. 19. AP Photo/Kathy Willens
TimesLedger Newspapers

As residents living in areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy slowly start to put their lives back together and rebuild, some are worried about an additional concern: the quality of their air and water.

In the Rockaways a month after the storm, dust and debris were still suspended in the air in many areas. Business owners cleaning out their wrecked stores were battling mold. And concerns about water quality mounted after reports that sewage had leaked from damaged treatment plants and flowed into New York and New Jersey waterways.

State Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Ozone Park) said he had received several calls from constituents worried about the safety of the air and water. He said some complained of an ailment going around called the “Sandy Cough” that he said might be attributed to random dust in the air, but there is concern it could be due to asbestos, mold or sewage that had washed up.

“We just don’t know,” he said “And that’s the biggest fear, fear of the unknown.”

Mary Hansen, who lives in Hamilton Beach and had been spending every day cleaning up her flooded home, said she had been struck by the ailment.

“I’ve developed a cough, and I don’t cough. I’m not a cougher unless I’m sick,” she said. “There was a lot of dust and a just lot of … smell.”

She said for a while after the storm she could smell high tide by whiffs of chemicals, which she said could be from boats that leaked oil.

“There’s shiny stuff in my water,” she said.

Meanwhile, Goldfeder said he is calling on the city Departments of Health and Environmental Protection to conduct daily tests for safety.

“It’s easy for someone to say it’s safe, but until we see documentation or proof, everyone is afraid,” he said.

He said so far he has not received an answer from the city about the availability or viability of such daily tests.

But DOH and DEP said tests of the air and water have been performed. Both agencies said they have been monitoring the city’s drinking water system and found tap water is safe to drink in the city, including in all areas that experienced flooding with one exception. In Breezy Point, tap water is not drinkable even if it is boiled, the DEP said, because it is assumed there was extensive damage to the water pipes there. Residents are asked to drink bottled water.

DEP also announced Friday that advisories for the New York Harbor, Hudson River, East River, Jamaica Bay and the Kill Van Kull that were put in place following storm damage to 10 of the city’s 14 wastewater treatment plants were lifted following two weeks of water quality testing. The agency cautioned that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains an advisory for parts of the Rockaways that are on the ocean.

In addition, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has been conducting routine outdoor air quality monitoring and has not shown any unusual air quality risks since the hurricane, DOH and DEP said.

But DOH did caution that residents cleaning up their homes may come into contact with irritants such as dust, mold, fumes from temporary heating sources and the use of strong cleaning products. It said such contact could be irritating to the eyes, throat and lungs and worsen conditions like asthma.

The agency said residents should take precautions, such as wearing dust masks when cleaning up.

Reach reporter Karen Frantz by e-mail at kfrantz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-2604538.

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