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Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article


Air Pollution (and Deception) at Ground Zero: How Our Government Allowed Hundreds of Civilians to Breathe Contaminated Air After 9/11
Sierra Club, August 20, 2004


Many people in New York City are sick today because of exposure to the pollution from the September 11, 2001attack on the World Trade Center - not 10 people, not 50 people, but many hundreds of people. Some suffer from shortness of breath, chronic coughing and throat irritation, and some suffer from gastroesophogeal reflux disease.

Many are so debilitated by their physical conditions that they no longer can do their jobs, and most of them can no longer enjoy life as they used to. It is possible that many more will become ill in the coming years. People worry about cancer, weakened immunity, and reproductive effects, and many experts fear that some of these worries may well be justified. No one knows what tomorrow will bring for this exposed population.

Much of the exposure that caused these illnesses, sadly, could have been avoided if our federal government had responded to the crisis of the terrorist attack with proper concern for the people exposed. On August 21, 2003, the Inspector General for the federal Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") released a disturbing165-page report documenting the fact that the White House Council on Environmental Quality blocked health risk information that EPA wanted to release to the public following the September 11, 2001 attack. That, however, is only part of the story.

This report picks up where the EPA Inspector General's report left off. It identifies how not only EPA but also the Federal Emergency Management Agency ("FEMA") and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration ("OSHA") failed the Ground Zero community, misinforming them about hazards and failing to take proper action to prevent exposures.

It explains how the "know-nothing" tone of the federal government in this emergency had disastrous consequences for the people who serve on the "front line" of terror response. While news stories emerged as early as October 2001 about firefighters suffering from something called "World Trade Center Cough," most people outside New York are unaware of the wide range of workers and community people who have been afflicted by Ground Zero pollution. This report describes these people, their unmet needs and some continuing exposure risks.

This report documents why the federal government's failures cannot be excused by ignorance, surprise or emergency conditions, or by blaming workers who didn't wear protective masks. It warns that the Bush administration intends to make some of these failures into standard procedure for national emergencies. Finally, it recommends specific steps that the federal administration must take to change course, limit the harm from its failed approach to Ground Zero pollution, and promote better safety for the public in future national emergencies.

People who have followed the news stories about the World Trade Center pollution and health effects may have questions about what it all means. They may wonder whether anyone really knew at the time that public health risk warnings should be given. They may wonder whether the people who got sick were simply recalcitrant workers and residents who failed to follow safety directions. This report answers those questions. The answers are:

  • The hazards posed by the incineration and demolition of the towers were new in scale, but not that new in character. There was a long-standing, accepted body of knowledge about the potential dangers that the federal government ignored.
  • EPA failed to find toxic hazards because it did not look for them. Others did look, using proper technology that the federal government not only knew about but possessed, and found them. Even worse, EPA failed to revise its public health assurances even as this specific independent data on hazards became available.
  • Leaders in the Bush Administration failed to change their statements of assurance about safety even after it became clear that people were getting sick.
  • Many of the workers at and near Ground Zero did not have proper protective gear, and those that did have it received conflicting information about the need to use it.
  • OSHA refused to enforce federal worker safety requirements at Ground Zero, wrongly claiming that it had no authority in national emergencies. It then continued this refusal long after the emergency had passed, and long after it became apparent that environmental safety at Ground Zero was being compromised.
  • EPA and FEMA, in concert with New York City's own health department, told families that they could clean up the contaminated dust themselves with wet rags. In fact, they actually discouraged area residents from wearing safety masks.

The Bush Administration must face these failures and acknowledge responsibility for them. It must take action to limit any further harm by ensuring full and proper cleanup of remaining contamination from the disaster. It must provide long-term health monitoring, medical care and other assistance as needed to the people who suffer from or are at risk of disease or physical impairments because of exposure to the pollution.

Finally, it must repudiate those failures and abandon its ill-advised plans to make the mistakes of Ground Zero into policy for the rest of the country in future national emergencies. Indeed, our country will not be properly prepared to protect the public in the aftermath of any future terrorist attack unless our federal government faces and repudiates the severe shortcomings of its response to the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.


American families must be able to trust their government to tell them the truth about safety matters in a national emergency; anything less is completely unacceptable. Terrorist attacks often target civilians, and that was certainly the case in New York City on September 11, 2001. In such situations, the federal government must make every effort to ensure that civilians are protected - not put in harm's way. Neither economic or nor political goals should be placed ahead of that primary responsibility. In a national emergency, the federal government must provide its citizens with accurate information to help them make choices to protect themselves and their families. Yet, within less than a week of the terrorist attack, while the fires were still burning:

  • The federal administration urged civilians to come back into the Ground Zero area, with public assurances about safety based on data that any reasonable environmental analyst would dismiss as inadequate.
  • Many people were forced to go back into lower Manhattan to work when the air was still heavy with fumes from Ground Zero, because, as their employers told them, "EPA says it is safe."

This resulted in unnecessary human exposure to toxic chemicals, and it is evident that some people have suffered health effects as a result. Most of these people are not receiving proper medical monitoring, and some may need health care and other assistance.

Americans must be able to trust their government to take every action possible to protect the courageous local "first responders" in terrorist attacks. Yet, the Bush administration took the bizarre policy position that no federal health and safety laws should be enforced at Ground Zero. As a result, it failed to protect the rescue and recovery workers and other workers who responded to the catastrophe.

Leaders in the federal government also gave inadequate, conflicting health warnings that discouraged voluntary safety measures and failed to ensure that all first responders had proper safety equipment. Many of these workers are ill today. Some have lost their jobs and health coverage as a result, and many have been denied even the meager benefits of Workers' Compensation.

Politicians heaped praise on the rescue and recovery workers of Ground Zero. Yet, as disabled veterans have learned all too often in our country's history, praise and concern often last only as long as our time of urgent need. The federal government must recognize that commitment is a two-way street; it is wrong to call for courage and then abandon the long-term needs of those who show it. America cannot afford to lose the trust of its citizens in times of emergency, and it cannot afford to lose many of its best and most experienced "first responders" because of preventable illness.

The Ground Zero health risk cover-up did not result from a poorly informed federal government. Federal agencies have studied the pollution from combustion and demolition for decades. Osama Bid Laden's horrendous, murderous act involved the open, uncontrolled incineration and demolition of two huge buildings - conduct that would be illegal in any state of the Union whether it was an act of terrorism or not.

The federal administration's decision to issue repeated public assurances about safety when two giant towers filled with asbestos, plastics, mercury-contaminated fluorescent lights, lead-contaminated computers, and copy machines burned uncontrollably and collapsed in a cloud of dust - then smouldered for three months afterward - cannot be justified. The federal government knew very well that the combustion and demolishment of the towers was likely to produce toxic airborne soot and vapors as well as harmful dust. The notion that EPA had to wait for test data or technical information before telling people that the smoke, fumes and dust presented a health risk is simply absurd.

At the very least, our federal government should have assumed that the pollution was dangerous unless rigorous, comprehensive testing proved otherwise. It did not. Indeed, EPA - under the White House Council on Environmental Quality's firm direction - behaved as though it had never seen pollution before. Even more disturbingly, the federal administration failed to change its public statements about safety after it received information clearly showing the presence of health hazards.

Americans must be able to trust their federal government to follow through on promises for help when their community has been devastated by a massive international terrorist attack. The Bush administration declared that no expense would be spared in helping the affected communities to recover. Nevertheless, its action has fallen far short of the mark.

The federal administration has resisted calls for proper cleanup of the toxic dust remaining in residences and other buildings even though more than 2,700 children under ten years old live in the community surrounding Ground Zero. Also, the federal government has not provided sufficient long-term health monitoring, medical care and other assistance for the people who suffer adverse health effects or are at risk from exposure to the pollution from the terrorist attack. This failure is having a harmful impact on the Ground Zero community and it is preventing a full recovery in New York City.

Now, the Bush administration apparently plans to turn its missteps on public safety at Ground Zero into standard policy nationwide for any future national emergency. Its new plan would institutionalize its failure to enforce federal workplace safety laws. Also, it reportedly is contemplating adopting clean-up weaker clean-up standards for national disasters than Superfund standards, putting public health at risk. This means that the Bush administration has learned nothing from the illnesses, hardships and fears suffered by the Ground Zero community. Rather, it plans to perpetuate them in any future national disaster, anywhere else in the United States.

Americans need and deserve better treatment from their government.


The attack on the World Trade Center ("WTC") released toxic vapors and airborne particles that were hazardous to human health, including a toxic, caustic dust that settled on outdoor and indoor surfaces. The dust often became airborne through disturbances at Ground Zero during rescue and recovery efforts, and it posed a hazard for several reasons.

The fire at Ground Zero released polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a category of chemicals that includes substances that cause cancer and may cause other genetic effects that potentially may have affected children subjected to pre-natal exposure.

The WTC dust was as caustic as ammonia, and in some cases as caustic as drain cleaner. The federal government knew this, but did not tell the workers or the public.

Besides the asbestos, lead, dioxin and other pollutants, Ground Zero also released glass fibers, which can irritate and even cause scarring of respiratory system tissue.

Despite assurances that "most" WTC dust particles were too large to penetrate the lungs, some did. The larger caustic particles also "burned" the nose, throat and upper airways, and many heavily exposed people inadvertently swallowed some WTC dust.

The federal administration failed to limit harm to the public from the toxic substances released by the terrorist attack in several ways. While the attack was unexpected and devastating, and no one expects perfect safety practices immediately following such an event, the federal administration chose to respond in ways that further endangered human health. Its conduct prolonged hazards and promoted unsafe work conditions at Ground Zero, which increased human exposure to pollutants.

The WTC disaster was new in scale but not completely new in character. The federal government already knew many of the dangers from uncontrolled combustion and demolition, but did not warn the public against them. EPA knew from the outset that uncontrolled burning of building materials releases toxic chemicals, and that incineration ash and cement dust typically are caustic, because it had been studying incineration, demolition, and the pollution and debris that they generate for decades.

EPA misrepresented the meaning of asbestos test results by knowingly mis-characterizing its own technical detection limits as health standards.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality provided misleading data to U.S. Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joseph Lieberman in a letter which implied that most lower Manhattan homes were not contaminated by asbestos from the WTC dust.

EPA did not find health hazards because it did not look for them.

(1) EPA failed to test the WTC dust for harmful organic chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons ("PAHs") which are commonly emitted by combustion and in fact were present at high levels, according to independent tests. Private tests of dust from firefighters boots found PAHs at levels 115 and 422 times higher than EPA's health-based criteria for soil clean-up, and a newly released study of "window film" in lower Manhattan after the attack found PAH levels at 10 times greater than urban background levels. PAHs have been linked with cancer and reproductive effects.

(2) EPA used an older, less effective testing method for asbestos in dust even though it had advised schools -seven years before the September 11 attack - against using that "1982 technology." Disturbingly, EPA did not change its method after independent tests found higher levels of asbestos using the testing method that it had recommended to schools. Yet, EPA used the newer method at its own office building at 290 Broadway and had an asbestos clean-up based on the results.

What EPA did was like using a colander with giant holes, and then saying, 'Look, there's no spaghetti.' It was a test to find nothing.

These very fine particles are more dangerous because they are more easily inhaled and tend to contain higher concentrations of toxic substances.

(4) EPA failed to conduct scientific sampling to determine the extent of indoor contamination from the WTC pollution. It did not even conduct pre-cleaning testing in most of the apartments in its clean-up program. This is why the White House Council on Environmental Quality's assurance in a letter to Senators Hillary Clinton and Joseph Lieberman that nearly all homes tested as part of EPA's clean-up program lacked asbestos hazards was very misleading.

The federal administration failed at least __ times to correct its misinformation to the public even after independent data indicating greater health risks became known and even after news began to emerge about people getting sick.

(1) By September 27, 2001, the federal government had test results confirming that the WTC dust was highly caustic - as caustic as ammonia, and in some cases as caustic as drain cleaner. The pH of ordinary urban soil generally ranges from 6.7 to 7.3, but the pH of WTC dust ranged from 9.0 to as high as 11.5. EPA and OSHA, however, did not warn the public about this in a press release or even in directives to union health and safety officers. Ground Zero workers and neighborhood residents did not know about the test results until February 2002, when a St. Louis Post Dispatch reporter uncovered the information.

(2) EPA had direct information that area employees were at risk from the WTC pollution by early 2002 because a December 2001 survey of its own Region 2 office employees at 290 Broadway found that 65-69 percent of workers suffered worsened symptoms of cough, shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing, and severe headaches, and 81 percent suffered worsened eye irritation following September 11, 2001. EPA did not notify area residents and workers of the results of this survey.

Both FEMA and EPA assured residents that they could just clean up the contaminated indoor WTC dust themselves, instead of warning them against its hazards. Indeed, even after EPA launched an indoor clean-up program, it continued to assure residents that it was not really needed.

The federal administration failed even to give special warnings for children and people with respiratory, immune system or heart disorders, who are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of pollution.

[W]e fully recognize the extraordinary circumstances that existed at the time the statement was made about the air being safe to breathe. It continues to be our opinion that there was insufficient information to support the statement.

The government has a higher duty to protect its citizens' health and safety.

Some may argue that there was a need to "soften" the message about pollution during the first few days in order to prevent public panic. In fact, there is a big difference between alarm and panic. No one would advocate keeping silent about a fire in a building. People should be warned when they need to take action to protect themselves, and telling people to do so in the case of Ground Zero pollution most certainly would not have caused widespread, uncontrollable frenzy. Despite the myth of public panic, experts have found that such conduct is rare, that people more consistently tend to bind together in the aftermath of disasters to restore their physical environment and their culture. Many disaster experts urge that treating the public with respect and forthrightness is the best approach. Albany Times Union columnist Fred LeBrun made this comment:

Did Washington think we'd panic over the toxic possibilities, or that Manhattanites would stop breathing? Or that the cops, firefighters and rescue workers would stop sifting the rubble 24/7 for their comrades and other victims? Not a chance.

There is no question that the rescue and recovery work would have proceeded. But if proper warnings had been given, it would have proceeded more safely. Also, the emergency conditions of the first few days certainly cannot justify the continued suppression of health warnings that occurred during the many weeks and months that followed the attack, as Ground Zero smouldered and contaminated dust lingered in homes and workplaces.

"Americans were more than ready to pull together and make sacrifices - witness the outpouring of Ground Zero volunteers - and Wall Streeters were no different. They'd have come to work in respirators too if need be.

Instead, the federal government's unjustified assurances discouraged both workers and residents from taking very important precautions - indeed, it almost seemed unpatriotic to wear a mask.

The federal government also failed to take strong direct action itself to protect the public - including workers, small business owners and members of the community - from the harmful aftermath of the terrorist attack.

The federal administration utterly failed to enforce worker safety standards at Ground Zero. OSHA has general authority to enforce the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, and primary responsibility for worker safety and health during national emergencies. Yet both FEMA and OSHA took the position, wrongly, that OSHA had no authority to enforce federal standards in emergency rescue operations. This runs counter to its own regulations and policies.

OSHA neglected to assert enforcement authority or seek a joint enforcement agreement with the City even after it became obvious that safety enforcement was failing at Ground Zero. It continued to take no enforcement action long after rescue operations had ceased.

EPA acknowledged as early as November 2001 that it had the lead responsibility to clean up buildings contaminated as a result of terrorism, but did not launch an effort until summer 2003, and never did carry out most of its responsibility. It also failed to implement the strict federal standards for toxic clean-ups. This left both families and workers at risk.

  1. Most residences in EPA's chosen Ground Zero "clean-up zone" (below Canal and Pike Streets) were not cleaned by trained environmental workers, and WTC dust very likely permeated some buildings outside the zone in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
  2. The FEMA-funded EPA indoor clean-up program completely excluded non-residential buildings, and it did not ensure that such workplaces were made safe.
  3. EPA even refused to clean the firefighters' contaminated firehouses.

What may be most disturbing of all is the fact that the Bush administration plans to make the mistakes of Ground Zero into policy for all future national emergencies.

The Bush administration is eliminating OSHA's enforcement role at all future national emergency sites. Under its new National Emergency Management Plan, OSHA will not enforce safety rules, but instead will provide only technical assistance. The most likely result of this approach is inadequate protection for the hard-working and courageous Americans who respond to local disasters.

The Bush administration apparently is considering developing standards for toxic clean-up in national emergencies that are weaker than Superfund standards, thus leaving communities at risk.

Based on the real world experience of such policies in action at Ground Zero, this is the wrong direction for our country to take.

While one cannot predict with certainty what would have happened if the Bush administration had provided proper warnings, it is likely that better precautions would have been taken in many circumstances, and people might have been safer in several ways.

Many rescue and recovery workers and emergency services workers were given inadequate safety gear and conflicting messages about the need to use it. Despite government assertions to the contrary, many rescue and recovery workers did not receive properly protective masks in the early weeks. Also, the lack of federal warnings apparently reduced motivation to use the cumbersome safety equipment.

Union health and safety officers for communications workers and other services restoration workers encountered resistance when they urged employers to provide safety gear for workers. With proper federal warnings, many such workers probably would have been given better protective gear and used it more carefully.

Residents did not have the information they needed to make informed choices about how to protect themselves and their families. Some had to make hard decisions about whether to evacuate and when to return. Also, families were told to clean up the WTC dust in their homes themselves with wet rags and wet mops, even though much of it contained asbestos.

City sanitation workers who cleaned up WTC street dust and also transported, dumped and spread the WTC debris needed better protective gear; also, privately hired dust and debris clean-up workers often received no protective gear at all.

Volunteers helping with clean-up or servicing the rescue workers, as well as visiting politicians and celebrities who offered support and encouragement - including the famous actress Julia Roberts, who walked directly on the pile, did not receive proper advance warnings about the hazards and often did not have any protective gear.

No government agency ensured that contaminated workplaces were properly cleaned before employees returned and some employees reportedly were forbidden to wear masks on the job.

More small business owners might have been able to receive proper clean-up of their spaces and other needed assistance.

Charities might have been alerted about the need to fund long-term health monitoring and medical care. Instead, very little charitable funding, comparatively, was directed to this tremendous unmet need.

So most of the dust left behind by inadequate cleaning very likely still remains in homes and buildings, and may still present a health hazard, especially to children.

Some harder-to-clean areas in homes present a special exposure risk to children. Young children play on carpets and bounce on upholstered furniture. Their toys roll under radiators and behind appliances. They may inhale the dust that is disturbed by such activities, or accidentally ingest dust that gets on their fingers.

Less frequently cleaned areas - such as bookshelves, the tops of molding and under radiators - can "store" WTC dust and become sources of future unexpected exposures.

Lead, a toxic metal, is present in much of the indoor WTC dust, which could put very young children, if they accidentally ingest it, at risk of brain-damaging lead poisoning.

The "Ground Zero Community" includes a wide range of people who now are at risk of adverse health effects from exposure to WTC pollution. These include community residents, area employees, building cleaners, City sanitation workers, communications workers, plumbers and electricians, firefighters, emergency medical services workers and paramedics, police officers, volunteer rescue workers and other responders.

Many of these people are already sick. Screening has revealed a disturbing trend of long-lasting lung ailments and ear, nose and throat problems among many of these people. (The fate of the volunteers who generously came to Ground Zero to help with clean-up or to provide water and other services to the rescue/recovery workers has not been tracked systematically.) No one knows what the long-term health effects of exposure will be. They may include not only cancer but also effects on the immune system and reproductive system and possibly other genetic impacts. These long-term health impacts may not emerge for 10 to 30 years.

These people, who are suffering from or at risk of adverse health effects from exposure to the WTC pollution, need long-term health monitoring and other help. The federal government, however, has not provided reasonably adequate assistance to these people.

The World Trade Center medical monitoring program is only funded for five years, even though cancers and other harmful health effects can take from 10 to 30 years to appear.

Many people who already suffer health effects from the WTC pollution are under-insured, have no health insurance at all, or may need other assistance.

Some people who were harmed by the WTC pollution can no longer work in the occupation for which they were trained because of health impairments, and are suffering economically.

Many people who were exposed to the WTC pollution are not eligible for the narrow program that exists right now for medical monitoring. (And, as explained in Appendix C, the WTC Health Registry is only a data collection project; it does not provide health monitoring or treatment services to the public.)


The Bush administration must restore trust in its agencies charged with protecting health and safety and take action to mitigate the consequences of its own failure to provide proper warnings about the health hazards from Ground Zero. In particular, it must do the following:

  • Take action now to prevent more harm from its failure to ensure proper clean up of the WTC dust. A new cleanup must address both residential and non-residential buildings, and should include firehouses and emergency vehicles and equipment where needed.
  • Fund long-term medical monitoring, treatment and assistance as needed to the people who suffer or are at risk from adverse health effects because of exposure to WTC pollution.
  • Disclose and censure the top official involved in altering the EPA and OSHA press statements that suppressed the 9/11 health warnings, to send a clear message that failing to warn the public truthfully about health hazards is unacceptable. There must be accountability.
  • Work with Ground Zero-affected communities, labor unions and environmental health advocacy groups to develop effective national policies and practices that promote truthfulness in communication of health hazards from terrorist attacks and disasters.
  • Abandon its current plans to eliminate enforcement of federal safety standards for workers, and weaken community cleanup standards in future national emergencies - actions which would, in effect, make the administration's mistakes at Ground Zero into harmful, enduring policy for the rest of the country.



From Rep. Jerrold Nadler (NY-8):
"The Sierra Club's report is an incisive appraisal of the harmful actions committed by the EPA and other federal agencies that have resulted in serious damage to the lives of first responders, residents and workers of Lower Manhattan in the aftermath of the World Trade Center Attack. The report details how both by design and by neglect, the EPA responded in a contemptible and irresponsible manner to the unfolding environmental crisis, and how it continues to do so to this day. "

From Rep. Carolyn Maloney (NY-14):
"The heroes who gave of themselves so willingly in the aftermath of 9/11 have been given so little in return from the federal government. Many are suffering from severe health problems, but this report shows the lack of a coordinated federal response. They deserve more than limited health monitoring and no medical treatment - they deserve more than just token concern. The 'Remember 9/11 Health Act' I introduced will help remedy the shortcomings outlined in this report."

From Philip McArdle, Health and Safety Officer, Uniformed Firefighters Association:
"It's important that people realize the seriousness of the report in terms of the hazards that occurred and the health care that is now necessary, not only for firefighters but for the public at large. Government has to be more responsible in honest reporting to the public and in taking actions to protect Americans both during and after an event such as this."

From Frank Goldsmith, Dr. P.H., Director, Occupational Health, Local 100, Transport Workers Union:
"We hoped that the mistakes that EPA, OSHA and our federal officials made during the first days and months following the WTC disaster would have been corrected by better policy since. Sad to say, this has not been the case. Our union, along with other unions and community residents are still struggling with federal officials to do the right thing,"

From Jo Polett, spokesperson, 9/11 Environmental Action:
In 1967, when Hannah Arendt wrote: "The chances of factual truth surviving the onslaught of power are very slim indeed," she could well have been referring to the Bush administration's coverup of 9/11pollution. Because the government refused to conduct comprehensive testing inside area buildings following the collapse of the World Trade Center, we will never know the extent and nature of the contaminants to which people were exposed as they heeded false safety assurances and returned to their homes and offices. But the fact that significant health effects resulted from many of those exposures is irrefutable.

From Susan O'Brien, M.A. Assoc Director, NY Committee for Occupational Safety and Health:
OSHA made the decision not to enforce federal safety and health regulations and thousands of Ground Zero workers are suffering from respiratory illnesses. Is there a connection? We believe so. And we don't want to see this situation repeated, should another disaster occur."

From Alan Jay Gerson (D-WFP, NY City Council, 1st District, Lower Manhattan)
"As the 3rd Anniversary of the September 11 attack approaches, there are still thousands of residents and workers whose health may be at risk due to the lack of a proper clean up. The EPA technical advisory panel is step in the right direction, but much work remains to be done and more environmental and health studies are desperately needed. I salute the Sierra Club for this outstanding document and hope that it helps us further discussion and debate, as well as awareness around these important issues."


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