Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Doc's WTC Note: Don't hurry back
By Juan Gonzales, New York Daily News, October 28, 2003

The day after the World Trade Center collapse, a top federal scientist warned in a strongly worded memo against the quick reoccupation of buildings in lower Manhattan because of possible dangers from asbestos and other toxic materials.
"We feel that the issues surrounding a decision to enter orreenter previously occupied premises is enormously complex," wrote Dr. Ed Kilbourne, an associate administrator at thefederal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), in response to aWhite House request for a health advisory.

"A number of environmental hazards, especially asbestos- contaminated dust, may be present in the area," Kilbourne said in his two-page report to Dr. Kevin Yeskey, then the director of bioterrorism preparedness and response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Kilbourne's memo to Yeskey - which the Daily News recently obtained - was written after the White House asked the CDC to produce fact sheets on asbestos for release to the public. The ATSDR, which is in charge of assessing dangers from hazardous chemicals, often works closely with the CDC.

"We are concerned about even being asked to write a document for the public about reentry at this point," Kilbourne wrote. "Does this mean that unrestricted access to the WTC vicinity is imminent?"

"Sampling data received here in Atlanta from EPA [the Environmental Protection Agency] have so far been scanty," Kilbourne added.

He noted that one of the first five bulk dust samples analyzed by the EPA from the WTC site contained 4% asbestos, which he labeled a "substantial concentration."

He warned Yeskey that it was "important to characterize how far significant levels of asbestos extend before allowing unrestricted access by unprotected individuals."

"We are aware of other potential toxic hazards in the WTC area about which you haven't asked," the memo went on to say. "Contaminant groups of concern include acid gases, volatile organic compounds and heavy metals."

The worried tone of Kilbourne's memo was in sharp contrast to the upbeat official view the following day from then-EPA Administrator Christie Whitman.

"Monitoring and sampling conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday have been very reassuring about potential exposure of rescue crews and the public to environmental contaminants," said the first EPA press release from Whitman on Sept.13.

The EPA's inspector general revealed in August that the White House rewrote early agency press releases to downplay environmental hazards.

On Sept. 17, federal and city officials allowed thousands of people to return to their homes and workplaces in lower Manhattan, while rescue and firefighting operations continued in a sharply restricted zone around Ground Zero.

By then the EPA had analyzed 57 samples of dust in lower Manhattan, and 19 - or one-third - showed asbestos levels higher than the agency's own 1% danger threshold.

Efforts to reach Kilbourne and Yeskey for comment were unsuccessful. ATSDR spokeswoman Jill Smith confirmed the memo's authenticity but said Kilbourne was traveling and would not be available.

A spokesman at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where Yeskey is now assigned, said he was on sick leave and could not be reached.

Today, a House of Representatives subcommittee will meet in Manhattan at Mount Sinai Medical Center to probe the federal government's handling of public health issues stemming from 9/11.

At the hearing, doctors will report that one-third of nearly 7,000 Ground Zero workers enrolled in a screening program at Mount Sinai are still experiencing health problems related to their work at the site.

Perhaps committee members can locate Kilbourne and Yeskey and ask what the White House knew and how it used the scientific advice it was offered the day after 9/11.


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