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Sierra Club: Bush
Endangered Lives of New Yorkers After 9/11 By Lying About Dangers of Toxic Fallout
By Juan Gonzalez,
Democracy Now, August 19, 2004
A new Sierra Club report raises new questions about the Bush administration's handling of
the cleanup of downtown Manhattan in the days after 9/11. We'll speak with the author of
the report and a downtown Manhattan resident who suffers respiratory illness from World
Trade Center dust. [includes rush transcript]
As Republicans prepare to descend on New York City for their party Convention in less than
two weeks, a leading environmental group is raising new questions about the Bush
administration's handling of the cleanup of downtown Manhattan in the days after 9/11.
A new report by the Sierra Club charges that the Bush administration was guilty of
reckless disregard by failing to inform Ground Zero area workers, residents and rescuers
of health risks from toxic air after the collapse of the World Trade Center.
The report titled "Air Pollution and Deception at Ground Zero" blames the
thousands of cases of long-term respiratory illness among New Yorkers on the White House
and the Environmental Protection Agency, saying they downplayed health risks, shirked
their regulatory oversight roles and even urged financial district workers to return to
their jobs prematurely.
The EPA called the report "a blatant attempt to use this tragedy for political
In addition to misleading the public about the health hazards of the smoke and dust at
Ground Zero, the report finds that the Bush administration's mistakes are now in danger of
becoming policy for handling future disasters.
Suzanne Mattei, an attorney who heads the national field office of the Sierra Club in New
York. She is the author of the Sierra Club's new report "Air Pollution and Deception
at Ground Zero."
Jo Polett, downtown Manhattan resident who lives near Ground Zero. She has was been
diagnosed with reactive airways disease and GERDS from World Trade Center dust in her
apartment. She is a member of the group 9/11 Environmental Action
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JUAN GONZALEZ With us today to talk about that are the author of the report, Suzanne
Mattei, an attorney who heads the national field office of the Sierra Club in New York.
She's the author of "Air Pollution and Deception at Ground Zero." We're joined
by Jo Polett, a downtown Manhattan resident who lives near ground zero. She has been
diagnosed with Reactive Airways Disease and GERDS from World Trade Center dust in her
apartment. Welcome to both of you.
SUZANNE MATTEI Thank you. Glad to be here.
JUAN GONZALEZ Suzanne, there have been quite a few reports in recent years about the
federal government's handling of the environmental problems at ground zero. Could you
summarize what are some of the new findings that your report has put together--it's a
184-page report, its quite comprehensive, it took me about a day to read it.
Luckily, I was able to get an advance copy, and -- but tell us about some of the findings?
SUZANNE MATTEI Sure. Well, when I first started this report, I thought I would find some
political spinning of a few early press releases followed by some bureaucratic bungling,
and I thought it would take me maybe four months to write this thing. Instead it took over
a year because I found a lot more than that. I found that E.P.A did not find hazards
because they did not look for them, and when they did find hazards, they either didn't
tell us, or they came up with very lame excuses for why we shouldnt be concerned. It
was layer upon layer of deception and disregard. I found out that E.P.A had surveyed their
own employees, their office employees, who work at 290 Broadway, which is maybe seven
blocks away from the towers. They found out that they were sick in December, three months
after the attack. Long after E.P.A had told everybody, come back, come back to lower
Manhattan, told families come back, bring your kids, everybody was told to return. They
find out their own employees are sick. But I had never heard of that study. Nobody else I
knew, nobody else that I talked to had ever heard of that study. I went through E.P.A's
press releases. Nothing. No word about this study, but it was published in a scientific
journal. E.P.A. knew about it.
JUAN GONZALEZ It was published in July of 2002.
SUZANNE MATTEI July 2002, very quietly. But the public did not know about it. I found
other strange things, too. On the website, for example, there's a class of chemicals
called Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (so well call them P.A.H.s). But this
is a very toxic group of chemicals. Some of them are hormone disrupters. Some of them are
cancer-causing. Some of them may cause genetic defects that can be passed on to offspring.
There's been some new research around that, a lot of concern around that. They said on
their website that they found no P.A.H.'s in the air, which I couldn't understand, because
it's hard to burn anything without finding them. So...
JUAN GONZALEZ So P.A.H.s are basically a product of uncontrolled burning?
SUZANNE MATTEI Of uncontrolled combustion, yes, mixed materials, especially. And so I was
going through a bunch of footnotes to another scientific article, and I saw one that
Id never seen before. So I hunted it down and, yes, somebody had done some early
testing and, yes, they had found P.A.H.'s at significant levels, comparable to a severe
ozone, smog episode in Los Angeles and, lo and behold, the researchers were from Research
Triangle Park, E.P.A's own research center. So they had taken samples. They had even
published a study about it, but on their website, they were telling the public, they
didn't find it at all.
JUAN GONZALEZ Once again that study was published in August of 2003, about two years
SUZANNE MATTEI Yes. Yes. But they had the samples, and they had done the tests. They
didn't test for P.A.H.'s in the dust at all, as far as I can see, as far as I can tell.
But we found private tests that were done of dust from firefighters' boots and many, many
times higher than the standard that E.P.A would use for removing P.A.H.'s from soil at a
superfund site. So there were a lot of hazards. There were a lot of things like this that
I found and that other people have found in snippets. You put that together with the fact
that OSHA decided, for heaven only knows what reason, they were not going to do any
enforcement of health and safety standards at ground zero, and the whole thing is
completely baffling. I think -- it's hard to understand why -- why the federal government
behaved the way they did, but the consequences are not hard to understand.
JUAN GONZALEZ Let's get into that. Jo Polett, you are a downtown Manhattan resident. You
became very sick after 9/11. Could you talk about your experiences and how you are now
reacting to this report of the Sierra Club?
JO POLETT Yes. Sure. After September 11, I spent a week with friends in another part of
the city. The government said the air was safe, I came home, and it was -- I was fine for
a few weeks. Then I started getting symptoms that I ignored at first, because they said
there was no problem. So, I came down with bronchitis and, you know, called the doctor,
but wasn't concerned. Then I had symptoms -- inhaling. I would have soreness when I
inhaled; but I went to the website. They said expect short term symptoms, and they said
that scientific data doesn't show there will be any long term health problems for area
residents and workers. It should have occurred to me then that -- How could they talk
about scientific data on long term health consequences when it was three or four weeks
after the event? But I trusted the government. Eventually, I started -- I lost my voice
completely, and then I started having trouble breathing. That was in November. I was lucky
because I went to a physician -- a specialist in environmental medicine and I got proper
treatment, and I was told that I had to leave the area until my building was
JUAN GONZALEZ How long did you then stay out of the area?
JO POLETT It was -- let's see. My -- E.P.A got around to my building -- When was it? It
was July of 2003.
JUAN GONZALEZ In terms of the other people that youve -- you have been in contact
with, the various citizen groups at ground zero, how extensive--and maybe Suzanne, you can
talk also in terms of what you have found--in terms of how extensive has been the impact,
not just on the ground zero workers, which people are more perhaps aware of, but of the
residents in general? JO POLETT Suzanne should talk about the studies, because she really
JUAN GONZALEZ Fine.
JO POLETT But what I see -- one of the things that happened early on, I mean -- there were
people who became sensitized to the dust, like me, and people like that, they -- every
time you get exposed, you become more sensitized. People who didn't get out in time or
didn't get the appropriate medications, a lot of those people now have new onset asthma,
which at this point will not go away. Then there were people -- I mean at a certain point,
I was asking my doctor Well, there are people living there that are fine. So, what is this
about? I mean, her comment was, you know, maybe the people like you were lucky, because by
then she knew that there was lead in the dust, there was P.A.H., that it was very caustic.
There was glass. So, I mean, I guess the concern is what are we going to see later? I'm
running across people -- a lot of the people who became sensitized left. People who could
afford to leave and who were sick moved elsewhere. But I guess every month or so, my
organization, 9/11 Environmental Action, gets an e-mail from somebody who has symptoms and
doesn't know what to do, and it's just -- the people who didn't get the early treatment
are people who are never going to get back to where they were in terms of breathing
capacity, and it's just unnecessary.
JUAN GONZALEZ Suzanne, your study mentions a particular -- a particular red flag, which
was a health center in Chinatown that had enormous increase in the number of childhood
asthma cases in Chinese-American youth. You can talk a little bit about that, and again
when was that finally publicized?
SUZANNE MATTEI I don't have it right in my mind when that was publicized, but it was
fairly recently. What they did was they looked at a group of children who were visiting an
asthma clinic. They had data on these children from the year before the attack, and the
year after the attack. They found a very significant increase in their visits to the
asthma clinic, and the amount of medication that they had to use. Not only that, they
found a tremendous increase in patients -- I think it was a 67% increase in patients. They
had another asthma clinic out in Queens, and that clinic actually saw a decrease in the
number of patients, and did not see any of the kinds of increases that these children in
Chinatown experienced. That's of concern, first of all, because this is a very sensitive
population because asthma can be life-threatening, but also because those -- many of those
children were not even living in the zone that the federal Environmental Protection Agency
designated as its clean-up zone. You know, they sort of drew a line on the map and said
we'll clean some of these apartments on request, but no place else. Some of these children
lived outside that zone. So that's of concern. I'm also concerned about the transit
workers. Many people have no idea, but there were about 3,000 transit workers who
responded immediately to the disaster. They were the hard-hats, the welders that came down
and cut the steel so that the rescue workers could get in and try to find people. Most of
them did not have proper protection, and many of them are sick. I'm concerned about the
clean-up workers. There were hundreds -- hundreds of low-income people, most of them
immigrants, who were hired off the street to clean the buildings, clean the sidewalks.
Very few of them had any protection. There was a study done by Steven Markowitz at Queens
College, the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, and they found that nearly all of
them were sick. So, you know, this is all of great concern.
JUAN GONZALEZ And we're only talking right now about those who suffered immediate effects.
We're not talking about the long term problems that -- like cancer or others that may have
a longer latency period before the -- before we'll see the effects?
SUZANNE MATTEI Yes, and the immune system effects will be impossible to measure. How do
you know what causes what? If you have -- if you have a weakened immune system, you just
get sick more often from a whole lot of things. Nobody is going to be able to track that
JUAN GONZALEZ I'd like to ask you--your report has shown some of the more obviously
deliberate attempts to withhold information from the public; but it also centers in on the
role at the top.
SUZANNE MATTEI Yes.
JUAN GONZALEZ Specifically I think -- and Ive looked at all of the reports and
investigations on 9/11, and interestingly enough, yours is the only one that got -- that
really points to information that was already out there, but no one had connected.
SUZANNE MATTEI Yes.
JUAN GONZALEZ Which are the two books by former anti-terrorism czar, Richard Clarke, and
by former treasury secretary O'Neill about what President Bush said and did in the days
immediately -- actually on 9/11-- and in the following days about what he wanted done in
New York City. Could you talk about that?
SUZANNE MATTEI That's right. He wanted the stock market open immediately. He wanted it
open the very next day. He obviously had no idea of what had really happened in New York
City, and I believe it was Paul O'Neill who explained to him that the computers were under
water, so they weren't going to be able to open the stock exchange the next day. But there
was clearly tremendous pressure at the top to make that happen. And one can understand the
desire to get things as close to back to normal as quickly as you can. But civilians are
not soldiers. They're not supposed to be put in harm's way, and whatever you do in
whatever kind of war you are fighting, you are not supposed to -- you're not supposed to
put civilians at risk. And that's really what happened here. They had plenty of experts
who knew that this stuff was harmful. It's not as though -- it's not as though the experts
at E.P.A looked at that big dust cloud and said, gee, I wonder what could possibly be in
there? You know, they had a pretty good idea of what was in that cloud. They should have
issued a warning immediately -- immediately. And the pollution should have been considered
guilty until proven innocent, not the other way around.
JUAN GONZALEZ Obviously with President Bush ordering that he wanted the stock market and
downtown opened immediately, the question was what did Christie Whitman as the head of the
environmental agency--of the E.P.A--say to him about public health risks, and what did he
say back? That's the one part of this puzzle we still haven't found out.
SUZANNE MATTEI That's right. I didn't find anything in my freedom of information documents
that I requested from the E.P.A on that. Nobody really knows for sure. We don't know
beyond the White House Council on Environmental Quality how much further up did it go?
These are the unanswered questions. We have to get those answers. We have to understand
what happened here, because we have to assume that a national disaster will occur again.
It may not be from a terrorist attack. It may be from an accident. But we have to know how
these decisions are made, and who is being put at risk and why. We have to figure out a
way to make sure that this never, ever happens again.
JUAN GONZALEZ Well, I want to thank both of you for being with us. Suzanne Mattei, an
attorney who heads the national field office of the Sierra Club in New York, the author of
the new report "Air Pollution and Deception at Ground Zero," and Jo Polett, a
downtown Manhattan resident who has been suffering the health effects of the ground zero
contamination. We'll continue to cover this story and I have a column on your report in
today's New York Daily News.
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