Greenpointers say gas fumes are making them sick, and gov’t is stalling
“If something bad does happen … the agencies will have blood on their hands.”
When Mary Cinadr first started smelling gas fumes in her Greenpoint apartment in February, she assumed it was a one-time thing.
But soon those odors grew stronger, and they persisted over months. They were at their worst in the early morning and evening — times when Cinadr was typically home. She started to develop headaches, dizziness and loss of balance. She would wake up in the middle of the night with extreme pain in her toes and later numbness in her hands.
“Those vapors always start up around 6:30 a.m., where they slap me in the face, and then again in the early evening,” she told the Brooklyn Eagle. “The gasoline-like smell was distinct … They were so bad that I often had to leave my home.”
Cinadr, who was living in a three-bedroom duplex at 212 Freeman St., endured the fumes almost daily for roughly three months. She sought medical attention due to her symptoms and was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy, a nerve disease.
Her dog Ray developed a malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor around the same time.
Cinadr’s experience was not an isolated incident. Residents across the neighborhood on Java, India, Huron, Freeman and Russell streets, as well as tenants in the Msgr. McGolrick Park area, reported similar gasoline-like odors.
[A “Petroleum Vapors Town Hall” is slated to take place tonight from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at 176 Java St. City agencies will be in attendance.]
Complaints to 311 mentioning an odor increased in the district in February, the same time Cinadr began smelling petroleum in her home. It’s remained consistently high every month since.
Similar spikes have occurred in the past, most notably in April to June 2016, when 311 recorded the highest number of odor complaints in Community Board 1 since 2010, the earliest date for which there is data.
Via NYC Open Data/Ned Berke
New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation — which is working jointly on the issue with the state’s Department of Health — said its Spills Response experts are conducting a comprehensive investigation into the complaints. DEC claims its inspection revealed tentatively that there “may be a connection” between what local residents are observing and petroleum vapors periodically found in local sewers.
“The majority of air testing results revealed low-level background readings typically found in a sewer system,” DEC said in a statement. The agency found that sediment and debris clogging up the sewers contained a petroleum product — which was then flushed out, the statement added.
Councilmember Stephen Levin, who represents Greenpoint, said he would fight for “more justice,” and that his office has been in close communication with agencies, advocates and neighbors.
“Given the history of environmental abuse in Greenpoint, we all need to take this seriously and get to the bottom of the source of these vapors as soon as possible,” he said.
DEC said it “continues to monitor the situation to ensure public health and the environment are protected.”
Is the state’s testing comprehensive enough?
The DEC plans to conduct further testing at Cinadr’s apartment, rapidly respond to any additional complaints and to monitor any potential elevated petroleum vapors with a type of gas detector called a Photoionization detector (PID) as the city continues to work on the sewer lines, according to the agency.
But Dr. Vicky Keramida, who leads an environmental consulting firm, said that the state’s testing plans are not thorough enough.
The types of instruments they are using, she said, “are not suitable or appropriate means of detecting harmful levels” of carcinogenic and toxic chemicals. The appropriate instrument, according to Keramida, is a type of air tester called a Summa canister.
While the state agencies did perform an approximately 90-minute test in April in Cinadr’s apartment with Summa canisters, the tests revealed technical glitches, according to Nathan Walz of DOH. No further Summa canister tests were performed.
Keramida also said the building, as well as local sewers and areas inside and outside homes, needs to be continuously monitored if authorities are to get an accurate picture of risk.
“The one time sampling may not capture the presence of vapors,” she said.
Keramida also warned of the health risks indicated by the strength of the odor. She said that in small quantities, some of these chemicals are not detectable by smell, but still pose major risks. If one can smell it — like Cinadr and many Greenpoint residents can — the exposure level is much higher than what is considered toxic.
Additionally, these chemicals, whether solvents or petroleum, are hard to pinpoint to a source if they are already airborne, according to Keramida.
Cinadr says that both DOH and DEC have been dismissive of her, and have made her feel guilty for sending too many emails.
“One of the hardest things to deal with has been the resistance by DOH and DEC,” she said. “From the beginning I’ve just been trying to protect my health. When I sensed it wasn’t protected, I kept reaching out and they tried to make me feel bad for being vocal.”
“I cannot continue with the constant emails,” Walz of DOH wrote in an email reviewed by the Eagle. “I have many other projects I need to spend time on. I have been working so many extra hours pretty much daily and weekends to keep up with this site and others that I do not get paid or compensation for.”
At least four residents within a close proximity, including Cinadr, kept a vapor log. They found the times at which the fumes were strongest and the descriptions of the smell (that of petroleum) all lined up.
Tenants of a building on Green Street, roughly 400 feet away from Cinadr’s apartment, independently hired a private contractor to do an air test of their building. Ed Olmsted, a certified industrial hygienist, reviewed the results and found what appeared to be petroleum, but said the samples were inconclusive without further testing.
A tenant of that building also had to eventually move because of chronic nose bleeds, said one Green Street tenant.
The Greenpoint YMCA Early Childhood Center at 176 Java St. evacuated for similar smells on May 23.
“At the YMCA Parent Teacher Association meeting last night, it was confirmed that the smell was in fact petroleum and coming from the bathroom drains,” Amber Chess, a parent of a child at the school, wrote in an email.
Laura Risi Hofmann, a 61-year Greenpoint resident who grew up in an apartment on the same block and attended school in the same building as the daycare, said the noxious smells are nothing new.
“We always smelled odors,” she said. “We were evacuated for the same type of thing. That’s been going on since the 1950s. In my book, it’s just rearing its head again.”
Hofmann, who suffers from brain infarcts, believes the fumes have played some role in several of her family members being afflicted with fatal illnesses. She said her parents and their dog all died of brain disease in Greenpoint. Her father had supra nuclear palsy, her mother died of primary brain cancer and their dog died of encephalopathy.
“I’m just touching the surface,” she said. “This is really important to me because I see a lot of parallels between what happened with my family and what’s happening with Mary and her medical condition.”
Hofmann said several of her neighbors died due to cancers and tumors related to the brain. She lost three grandchildren — and both her daughter and one of her sons have autoimmune diseases, she told the Eagle.
“There is a long trail of illness too long to list here,” she said. “But the concerns and stories are real. Our environmental and health agencies have yet to officially connect the dots.”
Neighbors on edge
Neighborhood activists say until the exact source of the odor can be found, residents will not be able to sleep soundly in their own homes.
“There is concern that vapors are continuing to be detected by residents and that the source hasn’t been clearly identified; it’s a very troubling issue,” said Willis Elkins of Newtown Creek Alliance and Community Board 1. “It seems like the community concern is not going to subside until there are real answers and real solutions in place.”
Annie Allauzen, who lives on Russell St., says she’s also worried about the fumes, which she smells when she goes jogging at 6:30 p.m.
“It’s like a gasoline smell, and it’s not just inside my house, it’s down my block too,” she told the Eagle. “I’m very worried. I’m almost 38. I’ve never had this smell continuously where I’ve lived.”
Mike Schade, who has worked on toxic waste sites and chemical pollution issues for almost 20 years at the local, state and national level, said it’s no surprise that these vapors are persisting given Greenpoint’s long history of legacy pollution.
He said there are several sites in the neighborhood emitting cancer-causing carcinogens like Trichloroethylene (TCE).
“This is not the first time in the community that we’ve seen people’s homes being infiltrated by hazardous chemicals,” said Schade, a board member of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, a North Brooklyn nonprofit, and an employee at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.
“I think the latest incident fits into a larger pattern of injustices that residents and workers have faced from living in such close proximity to the petrochemical industry.”
The Neighbors Allied for Good Growth ToxiCity Map shows approximately seven oil and hazardous material spills within a roughly two-block radius of Cinadr’s apartment. (The data is from the beginning of city records up until the end of 2015.)
A report by Rachel Cernansky published in the Environ Health Perspect reveals that even low-level exposure over time to TCE can cause neurological and neurobehavioral effects, similar to what Cinadr has been experiencing, and what Hofmann’s family has struggled with for generations.
Schade said that the state agencies tasked with ensuring the safety of Cinadr’s apartment should publicly release information about what they tested for and what they found.
“Residents have a fundamental right to know what they may have potentially been exposed to,” he said.
After months, Cinadr is relocated
Concerned with the unknowns about the petroleum vapors, DOH finally authorized Cinadr to relocate on May 1 — roughly three months after the smell started — but only once the city’s Department of Environmental Protection conveyed the severity of the fumes.
She was instructed to front the costs for hotels and furnished apartments and that the DOH would reimburse her later. At press time, she had spent more than $11,600 on temporary housing, food and travel for six weeks, and because she hasn’t been able to rent out her bedrooms to roommates, she has exceeded her rent budget for many months.
Her relocation assistance, however, ended on June 8, even though her apartment is still not habitable and the promised air quality tests have not yet been performed to assess the vapors. The DOH is now handing the responsibility for Cinadr’s relocation to Michael Medovoy, her landlord. Medovoy’s final offer is for Cinadr to continue to pay for furnished apartments up front, and he will allow her to deduct those costs from her July rent.
But, Cinadr says, DOH and Medovoy have not responded to her inquiries about when the apartment will be habitable. To further complicate matters, the building is considering rent striking, meaning the residents would withhold rent in hopes that the landlord will act on repeated requests for needed repairs.
“I am financially overextended,” she said, “and now I’m being asked to overextend myself to my landlord, Michael Medovoy, for a hypothetical July 1 rent payment. It doesn’t make any sense. I don’t have anywhere to live. I slept on my friend’s couch. But I vow to keep speaking up, because I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”
Hofmann, the longtime Greenpoint resident, said she sees all too many parallels between what her family experienced over the years and what Mary is dealing with now. She said that if DOH and DEC do not take the appropriate measures to safeguard the neighborhood, there could be dire consequences.
“It feels like I’m reliving the same stuff that happened with my family,” said Hofmann, who has since moved to a different section of Greenpoint from where she grew up. “I can see all the connections: getting sick, going to doctors — even the denial part — not realizing that the danger is in your home, and then you come to realize that you’re not getting the help that you need.
“It’s such a devastating feeling when it happens, and it’s even more devastating when somebody actually passes on because of agency neglect. I hope that doesn’t happen to Mary, but in my book, if something bad does happen to her because of this, the agencies will have blood on their hands.”
A “Petroleum Vapors Town Hall” is slated to take place tonight from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at 176 Java St., the location of the daycare center that experienced petroleum vapors. DEC, DEP and the city’s Department of Health will be in attendance.
Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.
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