Watching the Detectors


New York City is considering a law that would make it illegal to detect toxins without a permit. What kind of toxins? Well, just about all of them.

And it's not just devices to detect weaponized anthrax that they want the power to control, but those that detect everything from industrial pollutants to asbestos in shoddy apartments. Want to test for pollution in low-income neighborhoods with high rates of childhood asthma? Gotta ask the cops for permission. Why? So you "will not lead to excessive false alarms and unwarranted anxiety," the first draft of the law states.


Dozens of university researchers, public-health professionals, and environmental lawyers sat in the crowd, horrified by the prospect that if this law passes, their work detecting and warning the public about airborne pollutants will become next to impossible. But Falkenrath pressed on, saying that unless the police can determine who gets to look for nasty stuff floating in the air, the city would be paralyzed by fear.

Never mind that such a false alarm triggered by faulty, privately-owned, unlicensed "detectors" has never happened. And the notion of forcing watchdog groups to get permission from the government before attempting to determine if what in many cases is government pollution is pretty farcical. Objectors rightly brought up Ground Zero, where the EPA and city officials assured rescue workers the air was safe, only to retract those assurances five years and several untimely deaths and serious illnesses later.

When the Environmental Protection Agency promised that the air surrounding Ground Zero was safe, Vallone said, independent testers proved that such assurances were utterly false. Would these groups really have to get a permit before they started working? "It's a good question, and it has come up prior to this hearing," Falkenrath replied. "What I can assure you is that we will look extremely carefully at this issue of the independent groups, and get the opinion of the other city agencies on how to handle that, and craft an appropriate response." And if people use these detectors without a permit, Vallone asked, do we really have to put them in jail? Afraid so, Falkenrath answered.

Sometimes we need to be saved from the people who would save us.