Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article|
Danger in the dust: EPA
assured public before actual testing
By Laurie Garrett, Newsday Staff
Writer, August 28, 2003
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001,
attacks on the World Trade Center, testing to monitor levels of debris dust didn't begin
for 10 days - and analysis of the findings didn't become available until October. Months
later EPA scientists would conclude that the dust caused lung disease in test animals -
ailments that mimicked those reported in people who lived and worked near Ground Zero.
The Environmental Protection Agency was not in possession of information about the debris
dust in the air when it assured New Yorkers, fewer than two days after the World Trade
Center collapse, that the public had no reason for concern about the air being breathed.
In the tests, conducted in May 2002, EPA scientists exposed mice to dust from Ground Zero.
The mice developed respiratory ailments, the severity of which closely corresponded to the
dust levels, according to the study, which is available at www.epa.gov.
Though air monitoring for such specific substances as asbestos, lead and various heavy
metals was under way throughout the city, testing the air for pulverized concrete and
glass did not begin until Sept. 21, and in most locations not until October. The first
results weren't available until Oct. 4.
According to an internal EPA report released Friday, the EPA was directed by the White
House in the days after Sept. 11 to amend its press releases by adding reassuring
statements and removing cautionary ones. On Sept. 16, the day before the stock market
reopened, the EPA insisted, "Our tests show that it is safe for New Yorkers to go
back to work in New York's financial district." Workers and residents shortly began
returning to their downtown offices and homes.
"People went back to their apartments because [former EPA director] Christie Todd
Whitman said it was safe," Dr. Steven Levin of The Mount Sinai Hospital said in an
interview. "I have patients who knew it was wrong - they could feel it. But their
employer said, 'The EPA says it's safe.'" Levin is studying the health of 6,100
patients in the wake of the disaster.
"If I have outrage over anything, this is it. Who do you believe? If you can't trust
the EPA, it's a terrible consequence for public health."
Levin and other medical professionals say thousands of New Yorkers have developed
respiratory illnesses associated with exposure to the dust.
Though physicians and scientists say they believe they can rule out long-term effects such
as cancer, they are concerned about the potential for permanent sensitivities that cause
sufferers to gasp for air. While scientists agree that people were harmed by the dust, the
question is how many.
Though air quality has returned to normal for lower Manhattan and Brooklyn and poses no
threat to public health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York
City health department plan to follow thousands of people for more than a decade to
monitor long-term health effects.
Because of the nature of the lung ailments they are seeing, Levin and other physicians say
they are concerned about Ground Zero reconstruction, because the dust, diesel fumes and
other airborne particles are likely to exacerbate the ailments.
"Some people are sure to have difficulty," Levin said. "No construction
goes on without generating dust or smoke. So I'm definitely worried." At its public
meetings, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. has not addressed the issue of air quality
The EPA initially monitored only for a narrow range of possible toxins and pollutants -
those specified under the Clean Air Act - and not for those that doctors and researchers
have pinpointed as most problematic: both large and fine particulates of pulverized
concrete and glass.
On Sept. 11 fewer than a dozen air-sampling monitors - designed to do routine tests of air
for violations of the Clean Air Act - were in place in downtown Manhattan and in Brooklyn.
They were not designed to test particulate matter levels, but instead to measure levels of
asbestos, lead, PCBs, dioxins, various heavy metals and assorted chemicals. Though some
monitors initially showed an uptick in the levels of some chemicals, including PCBs and
asbestos, none reached a level that alarmed the EPA. Most levels returned to below
regulatory standards within a week after the attacks.
The EPA's own publications and Web site show the first air samples collected for fine
particulate analysis were taken around Ground Zero 10 to 15 days after the attack, and
results weren't known until early October. Coarse particulate samples weren't collected
until early October, after lower Manhattan streets had been cleaned and the bulk of the
debris outside the immediate World Trade Center site had been removed.
Yet on Sept. 13, 2001, the EPA issued the following statement: "Monitoring and
sampling conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday [Sept. 11 and 12]have been very reassuring
about potential exposure of rescue crews and the public to environmental contaminants ...
the general public should be very reassured by initial sampling."
The EPA database shows it either collected or received from other federal, state and city
agencies 66,000 dust and air samples between Sept. 11 and November 13, 2001. Almost none
was available when the EPA pronounced the air safe to breathe.
Within minutes after the collapse of the first World Trade Center tower, "it was very
apparent to us that this tragedy was a public health and environmental crisis. That was
really apparent on Day One as we, like others, struggled to breathe," Dr. Isaac
Weisfuse, assistant commissioner in the New York City Department of Health and Mental
Hygiene, said in an interview this week. The city agency, as well as the EPA, scrambled to
collect debris dust samples on Sept. 11, testing them first for lead, and results were
available Sept. 12. The following day, the only new data concerned asbestos; about 25
percent of collected samples showed levels above the regulatory standard. By the time
Whitman declared on Sept. 18 that "the air is safe to breathe," various agencies
had collected and analyzed data for lead, asbestos, benzene and mercury.
The pulverized concrete and glass had an inordinately high alkali content - not unlike
salt - and analysis of the first sample didn't occur until Sept. 28; most of the data
would not be available until October.
"The issue of the dust in general was a concern early on, even if it wasn't supported
by data," Weisfuse says, "because it was obvious people were choking."
Months later, a team of EPA scientists ran experiments on mice exposed to Ground Zero
dust. Since human inhalation of such a concoction had never been studied, there was no way
to know how much would be too much for a human lung.
The scientists exposed wild mice to various doses of the dust and discovered a direct
dose/response relationship: The lower the dose of dust, the milder the symptoms. At higher
doses the animals got Reactive Airways Disease Syndrome, or RADS.
When the EPA scientists calculated what those mouse doses would mean to humans, they
determined that a range of 42 to 425 micrograms per cubic meter of air would be
sufficient, in a single exposure, to cause RADS in humans. This EPA mouse study has not
been published in a medical or scientific journal.
According to the EPA's monitoring data, posted on its Web site, several air and dust
sampling stations in Manhattan gave readings in that range when tests were run. A sampling
on Park Row came up at 42.4 micrograms per cubic meter on Sept. 26; on Sept. 21, a sample
gathered at Albany and West streets measured 40.6; a week later, that site recorded a
The EPA scientists who conducted the mouse study wrote in their report that even one day
of exposure to such levels "could have contributed to development of pulmonary
inflammation, airway hyperresponsiveness, and manifestations of sensory irritation such as
Treatment for RADS involves the same types of anti-inflammatory inhalants and drugs used
Last week's internal EPA report revealed that the agency's optimistic language on air
quality was ordered by the White House National Security Council and Council on
Environmental Quality, or CEQ. Speaking yesterday on WNYC radio, Sen. Hillary Rodham
Clinton, who has called for a Senate investigation of the White House's role, said,
"Time and again the government said to us - I mean months later - 'it's safe'. I
think it would be very important to find out what was the collaborative process in the
White House. Who did change those press releases?"
Acting EPA Administrator Marianne Horinko declined to identify who at the White House was
involved. "Why would we purposely mislead people about a national tragedy?" she
asked. She charged that the internal EPA report was "pure political conjecture"
motivated by unstated ill will in the agency's inspector general's office.
The key player in the White House campaign to soften concerns about New York's air was,
according to Washington sources, CEQ director James Connaughton. He had worked for the law
firm Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, in its environmental practice group, until shortly
before the attack, and had represented mining companies accused of pollution offenses.
Calls to the White House for comment were not returned, nor were interview requests to the
National Security Council.
The EPA, in its written rebuttal to the internal report, insists that residents of
downtown Manhattan were under the guidance of the city health department, not the EPA.
Decisions regarding when it was safe to return to homes and offices, how best to clean
those facilities, and what precautions ought to be taken were the result, the rebuttal
says, of "guidance" that was "provided by New York City."
But almost from 9/11, Weisfuse said, the EPA was in conference calls with city and state
health agencies, during which "data was reviewed" and policy was discussed.
Danger in the Smoke and Dust
Human health studies conducted after Sept. 11, 2001, have reported the following:
Immigrant laborers hired to clean up businesses and apartments suffered severe respiratory
symptoms and in some cases illnesses involving organ systems besides the lungs. Dr. Steven
Markowitz and colleagues from Queens College tested 415 cleanup workers, "nearly all
of whom," Markowitz said, suffered a long-lasting syndrome of upper airways
irritation, congestion and chest pain.
Dr. Steven Levin at the Mount Sinai Hospital is leading a team studying 6,100 workers in
offices and businesses below Canal Street on Sept. 11, 2001. Nearly all have symptoms of
respiratory illnesses similar to asthma: periodic gasping for air, a choking sensation and
unusual sensitivity to airborne irritants. Levin is convinced they have a type of
"occupational asthma" called Reactive Airways Disease Syndrome.
GROUND ZERO COPS
Dr. Walfredo Lyon and his Downstate Medical Center team in Brooklyn found RADS in a study
of 82 New York City police officers who worked around Ground Zero during the fall of 2001.
"Most are still sick," he said. "And that's what they have - RADS."
A study conducted by several medical schools and the city fire department found 332
firefighters at Ground Zero suffered respiratory problems, including RADS. The researchers
dubbed the ailment World Trade Center Cough. Most of the firefighters are on permanent
Women who were pregnant on Sept. 11 and lived or worked around Ground Zero were twice as
likely to deliver a baby smaller than normal among New Yorkers of similar racial and
economic backgrounds. Dr. Philip Landrigan and his colleagues at Mount Sinai School of
Medicine examined 187 women and their newborns, comparing them with 3,000 mother/baby
combinations from uptown Manhattan. They found the birth weight for the Ground Zero babies
was an ounce or more below normal.
Anecdotally, physicians in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan report a sharp uptick in
adult-onset asthma diagnoses since Sept. 11. Still pending are the results of a joint
NYU/New York State Department of Health survey of 10,000 lower Manhattan residents,
conducted by Dr. Joan Reibman of NYU. Results have been tabulated, but they are not ready
for release, Reibman said.
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