Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Report: White House Misled City on Post-9/11 Health Issues
By Laurie Garrett, Newsday Staff Writer, August 22, 2003   

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, the White House instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to give the public misleading information, telling New Yorkers it was safe to breathe when reliable information on air quality was not available. That finding is included in a report released Friday by the Office of the Inspector General of the EPA, "EPA's Response to the World Trade Center Collapse: Challenges, Successes and Areas for Improvement."

"When the EPA made a September 18 announcement that the air was 'safe' to breathe, it did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement," the report says. "Furthermore, The White House Council on Environmental Quality influenced ... the information that EPA communicated to the public through its early press releases when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones."

On the morning of Sept. 12, according to the report, the office of then-Administrator of the EPA Christie Whitman issued a memo: "All statements to the media should be cleared through the NSC [National Security Council in the White House] before they are released." The 165-page report compares excerpts from EPA draft statements to the final versions, including these:
The draft statement contained a warning from EPA scientists that homes and businesses near Ground Zero should be cleaned by professionals. Instead, the public was told to follow instructions from New York City officials. Another draft statement raising concerns about "sensitive populations" such as asthma patients, the elderly and people with underlying respiratory diseases was deleted.

Discovery of asbestos higher than safe levels in dust samples from lower Manhattan was changed to state that "samples confirm previous reports that ambient air quality meets OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standards and consequently is not a cause for public concern."

Language in an EPA draft stating that asbestos levels in some areas were three times higher than national standards was changed to "slightly above the 1 percent trigger for defining asbestos material."

This sentence was added to a Sept. 16 press release: "Our tests show that it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York's financial district." It replaced a statement that initial monitors failed to turn up dangerous samples.

A warning on the importance of safely handling Ground Zero cleanup, due to lead and asbestos exposure, was changed to say that some contaminants had been noted downtown but "the general public should be very reassured by initial sampling." The report also notes examples when EPA officials claimed conditions were safe when no scientific support was available.

New York's leaders responded with dismay. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-Manhattan) called for a Justice Department investigation. "That the White House instructed EPA officials to downplay the health impact of the World Trade Center contaminants due to 'competing considerations' at the expense of the health and lives of New York City residents is an abomination," he said in a press release.

In an interview, City Council member David Yassky, who has questioned the safety of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan air after Sept. 11, directed angry remarks at the White House, saying he is "outraged that the White House manipulated the information that was communicated to the people of New York. I want an independent investigation to determine exactly who at the White House manipulated the information."

Sen. Charles Schumer said in an interview it was "understandable that in the midst of a crisis the White House did not want the EPA to sound alarmist." But he warned, "If the public loses faith that things are safe when the government says so, we'll have done more damage than a pointed statement the week after 9/11 would have."

The White House did not respond to requests for comment. Acting EPA Administrator Marianne Horikno, who sat in on EPA meetings with the White House during the 9/11 aftermath, said in an interview that the White House had played a coordinating role, assembling information from various federal agencies. "It was a role someone had to play," Horikno said. "There was a potential for a Tower of Babel, and we needed to speak with one voice."

The National Security Council played the key role, filtering incoming data on Ground Zero air and water, Horikno said, and "I think that the thinking was these are experts in WMD [weapons of mass destruction], so they should have the coordinating role."

The focus at EPA, she continued, was on gathering data and making it public as rapidly as possible. "Under unbelievably trying conditions, EPA did the best that it could," she said. But the Inspector General's report found the effort lacked credibility. One example cited: EPA's statements concluded as early as Sept. 12 that the plume of debris that shot into the air over lower Manhattan and blew over the East River into Brooklyn posed no significant health hazard. But there is no precedent for human inhalation of such a concoction of pulverized glass and concrete and no scientific basis for determining how the mixture would react chemically with pollutants such as PCBs, dioxins, asbestos, lead, cadmium and other substances found in WTC dust samples. "We never had a situation where we have an asbestos snowstorm before, or an alkaline snowstorm," Horikno said. "There's always another study you could do. There's always unknowns, uncertainty."

"I said at the time that they were premature in declaring the air safe," George Thurston associate professor of environmental medicine at NYU Medical School, said in an interview yesterday. "I think most scientists said, 'Based on the information we have, we don't see problems. But we don't know everything yet.'

"This whole thing of saying the air was safe to breathe and the water safe to drink -- there was no basis to say that."

Dr. Paul Lioy or Rutgers University, who conducted some of the air quality studies around Ground Zero and warned that the alkali mixture posed unknown threats to human health, was willing to cut the EPA some slack. He recalled that in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, air quality was not on people's minds. "The issue then was how many people were dead -- were there still 15,000 people under the rubble?"

In June 2002 the EPA determined that air quality had returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels. Thurston, for one, remains worried about reconstruction of Ground Zero. "These people are going to be re-exposed with all the construction, diesel gas from the trucks, digging," Thurston said. "So we need to be watchful, careful. We're planning this now -- let's plan it right."

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