Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article|
Sept. 11 ground zero air
By Chris Bowman and Edie Lau, Sacramento Bee, March 17, 2003
The U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency's pollution tests in the smoke-filled days following the World Trade Center
collapse did not support the agency's pronouncements that the air around ground zero was
safe to breathe, an independent federal investigation has found. Further, the EPA reached
its conclusion using a cancer risk level 100 times greater than what it traditionally
deems "acceptable" for public exposure to toxic air contaminants, according to
the EPA's Office of Inspector General.
The "preliminary conclusions," contained in an internal OIG document obtained by
The Bee reinforce the views of many doctors and public health advocates involved in the
medical evaluations of thousands of firefighters, volunteers, demolition workers and
immigrant laborers who toiled in the thick of the dust, smoke and fumes. "To say that
it's safe, which suggests no risk - we just knew that was wrong," said Jonathan
Bennett, spokesman for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a labor
union advocacy group, which had doctors in a roving van seeing cleanup workers. "The
proof of this was in what you saw in the people in the van and in people being seen to
this day at the Mount Sinai Medical Center," Bennett said.
More than half the Ground Zero workers screened by health experts nearly a year after the
attacks continued to suffer from lung, ear, nose and throat problems, according to a study
released in January by Mount Sinai, in New York. The federally funded screening program so
far has evaluated more than 3,500 of the estimated 40,000 workers directly involved in the
rescue, recovery and cleanup.
EPA officials declined comment Friday, noting that the inspector general's investigation
is still under way. "It is inappropriate for the EPA to be commenting on a document
that is not final and that is being done independently," said Lisa Harrison, the
agency's press secretary.
The preliminary findings by the EPA's Office of Inspector General are the latest in a
series of criticisms that doctors, scientists and politicians have leveled against the EPA
over its response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the twin towers. The EPA's
ombudsman at the time, Robert Martin, said in testimony last year before a Senate
subcommittee that the EPA "has provided erroneous information to the public" and
has "not used the best available technology to measure asbestos levels." Martin
later resigned in protest, saying EPA Administrator Christie Whitman moved to silence him.
Whitman denies the charge.
A U.S. Geological Survey team found shortly after the attacks that some dust from the site
was as caustic as drain cleaner because of the high concentration of pulverized cement, an
alkaline substance. The team's conclusion, revealed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
newspaper, had been sent to the EPA and other government agencies, but none made the
finding public. And, in February last year, scientists at the University of California,
Davis, reported that dust and fumes from the smoldering rubble exposed lower Manhattan
residents to some of the highest levels of air pollution ever recorded.
A study published last fall in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that 332, or
3.3 percent, of the 9,914 New York City firefighters on the scene in the week after Sept.
11 developed "World Trade Center cough," a severe and persistent hacking.
"Within 24 hours after exposure, all 332 firefighters with World Trade Center cough
reported having a productive cough; the sputum was usually black to grayish and
infiltrated with 'pebbles or particles,'" the article states.
Dr. Ghulam Saydain, a pulmonologist at Nassau University Medical Center on Long Island,
said some of the more than 600 patients - mainly firefighters and police - seen at the
center's Ground Zero clinic developed "significant" respiratory disease.
"Many of them are getting better, and some of them, even after - it's been more than
1 1/2 years now - still have symptoms," Saydain said.
Thomas Cahill, a physicist and international authority on air pollution who led the UCD
study, said his laboratory analyses of air samples showed that the towers' collapse spewed
enormous amounts of potentially lethal, extremely tiny particles of crushed and
incinerated computers, glass, furniture and other building debris unrecognized by the
EPA's air monitoring. "The EPA made a series of rather ordinary measurements and made
pronouncements that were not supported by the facts," Cahill said last week upon
learning of the OIG report.
The OIG has been investigating the EPA's handling of the World Trade Center fallout for
more than a year, a spokeswoman said. Though connected to the EPA, the agency has no
authority over the inspection teams. The OIG acts as a public watchdog, investigating
allegations of agency fraud, abuse and negligence. It reports to Congress.
The document obtained by The Bee is an internal OIG "status report" on the World
Trade Center investigation. The report summarizes investigators' "preliminary
conclusions" to date, based on interviews and document reviews, and outlines work in
progress. An OIG spokeswoman confirmed the report is accurate as of its date - Jan. 27 -
but cautioned that the findings cited could change before publication, which is expected
in mid-May. "The information on there is not solid because our work is not concluded
yet," said Eileen McMahon, an OIG spokeswoman.
A chief objective of the investigation is to determine whether air pollution monitoring
data from the collapse site and in the surrounding New York financial district support
what EPA told the public about the health risks. Whitman, the agency administrator, made
repeated assurances in the first few weeks after Sept. 11 that the air around the wreckage
largely was safe to breathe. "Given the scope of the tragedy ... I am glad to
reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C., that the air is safe to breathe, and
their water is safe to drink," Whitman announced one week after the terrorist
In the January status report to Office of Inspector General managers, a team of six
investigators said that it had concluded Whitman's declarations were premature. "EPA
did not have sufficient data to declare the ambient (outside) air 'safe to breathe' when
it did," the report states.
The report cites several reasons:
- The EPA had data on only four of 14 pollutants that scientists believe the public
potentially was exposed to immediately after the collapse of the twin towers.
- The criterion the EPA used to conclude asbestos levels were safe is not health-based.
Rather, it is a crude standard applied to schools that have undergone asbestos removal, to
make sure contractors made no major mistakes.
- The EPA's pronouncements did not address short-term health impacts.
- The agency's air quality standards are not applicable to this kind of pollution event:
enormous clouds of finely pulverized glass, concrete and gypsum and a superheated pile of
rubble that spewed ultrafine particles and poisons into the air for weeks.
"Health standards do not exist for (the) cumulative impact of exposure to several
pollutants at once or the synergistic impact of air toxins unknown and little
studied," the report states. Also, the inspection team said it learned that the EPA
applied a dramatically higher level of "acceptable risk" in making its
pronouncements. "EPA's conclusion that the air was safe is based on a one in 10,000
risk that someone will develop cancer from exposure to the WTC (World Trade Center)
pollutants, and this was only for a limited set of POCs (pollutants of concern)," the
For exposure to air toxins, the EPA traditionally has defined the acceptable cancer odds
as a one in 1 million, for the general public. Its regulation of occupational exposures
are based on risk levels no greater than 1 in 100,000. The OIG also is focused on the role
the White House played in drafting the EPA's press releases on the fallout of the World
Trade Center collapse.
A former EPA chief of staff "acknowledged that the content of the WTC press releases
was heavily influenced by (President Bush's) Council on Environmental Quality," the
OIG report states. "Selected e-mails indicate CEQ dictated (to the EPA public
information office) the content of early press releases - 100 percent of what CEQ added
was added; 100 percent of what CEQ deleted was deleted," the report states. The
report does not say whether the EPA objected to the changes. Spokeswomen for the council
and the EPA said it is not unusual for the White House to be involved in the drafting of
public statements, especially on high-profile issues.
While the EPA declined comment on the ongoing investigation, Whitman has strongly defended
the agency against other critics of its response to the New York City disaster. She has
pointed out that the EPA began monitoring the air in lower Manhattan within hours of the
collapse and that many EPA officials provided scientific, engineering, public health and
One scientist who was on the scene of the disaster said it is difficult to criticize the
agency's decisions given the enormity of the job responding to the chaos. "I don't
think I would have done any better or any worse," said Paul Lioy, an environmental
health scientist affiliated with Rutgers University and the University of Medicine &
Dentistry of New Jersey. "We were just going from one place to another, one moment to
another, trying to gather your wits in an event that shook the nation," Lioy said.
"This was a horrible learning experience."
FAIR USE NOTICE
This article contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been
specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material
available in my efforts to advance understanding of democracy, economic,
environmental, human rights, political, scientific, and social justice issues,
among others. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted
material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance
with Title 17 U.S.C. Section
107, the material in this article is distributed without profit for research
and educational purposes.
Take me back to learn more