Representatives from a handful of city agencies gathered to field questions from local residents at the Bushwick Inlet Park Community Room, just steps from the decimated CitiStorage warehouse that erupted in flames on January 31 and took more than a week to extinguish.
In the fire’s wake, many Brooklynites have criticized city environmental and public health agencies’ response to the seven-alarm blaze, saying the public health advisory issued on Saturday night arrived too late and that further testing for potential airborne toxins should be conducted.
“I think [the fire] has exposed the deep need for this kind of action,” said Greenpoint resident Emily Gallagher, who co-authored a Change.org petition calling on the De Blasio administration to implement a number of changes to the city’s fire response protocols. “The reason why we’ve asked these questions is because they’re not addressed in current policy.”
A principal concern on the Change.org petition and one vocalized throughout the night involved air quality, and specifically the potentially hazardous effects of dioxin, an environmental pollutant associated with paper production.
While Daniel Kass, deputy commissioner of Environmental Health with the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, conceded that health advisories about smoke inhalation should have been issued earlier in the day, an oversight he attributed to the agency’s failure to gauge the immensity of the fire’s scale and duration.
He said that on an area and community level, air quality returned to normal within 24 hours after the fire began, citing readings taken at P.S. 274 the day after the blaze began.
“I want to acknowledge air was unhealthful for a day, but it returned to normal fairly rapidly,” he said. “These are the sorts of events that happen over the course of the year all over the city, not from fires but from our essentially being bathed in a constant wash of air pollution.
“It was an unusually high 24-hour average, but then it returned to normal, and generally below levels of air pollution in other parts of the city,” he added.
He said that dioxin levels in paper are generally minuscule, measured in the parts per trillion, and in this case the Health Department didn’t consider dioxin a risk to local residents. The greatest immediate risk to local residents during fires is generally smoke inhalation, he said, and records indicated there was not a substantial uptick in emergency room visits or hospitalizations for respiratory disease during the fire.
The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) also conducted readings for airborne asbestos, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds in the aftermath of the fire and found all readings normal, said Rick Muller, director of Legislative Affairs with DEP.
He stressed that the testing is not standard practice for the agency, but was conducted in this instance at the request of Levin.
If these findings proffered peace of mind for the immediate future, attendees still voiced concerns over policies moving forward.
“This is not the first time this has happened, and frankly this is not the last time this will probably happen,” said Mike Schade, campaign director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and a Greenpoint resident who helped author the petition. “This is an opportunity for the city to take a really hard and close look at how it responds to fires like this. When there’s another industrial fire in the community, what can we do differently?”
Kaas said the Health Department had already revisited standard advisory protocols, and would work with the Office of Emergency Management to ensure a fire’s duration and size was considered earlier in its history.
He also pledged to meet with authors of the Change.org petition and other community members to discuss lingering concerns.