Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article


Ecological Impact of 9/11 - Lingering Threats: Contamination May Still Lurk Near Ground Zero: Part Three of Three
By Michelle Chen, The New Standard, February 7, 2005

In the eyes of many people who live and work near the Manhattan site of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the government’s response to their demands for more testing and decontamination have been woefully inadequate.

Scientific studies on the dust from the World Trade Center disaster and the people exposed to it suggest that not only the health effects, but also the contamination source itself may persist long after the initial impact. Activists are now calling on the federal government to implement plans to clean up leftover contamination and to fund research on and treatment for future health issues related to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Advocates like Suzanne Mattei, New York executive of the environmental group Sierra Club, complain that the three-year effort to force the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address these needs has yielded only half-baked, non-committal plans. She explained to The NewStandard that community members are understandably frustrated with "an agency that keeps proposing things that ordinary people in the community can immediately look at and shoot holes through."

Dangers in Settled Dust

The dust from Ground Zero was an extraordinary mix of chemicals -- not the type of dirt people can sweep away and forget about.

A study led by Dr. Paul Lioy of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute published in Environmental Health Perspectives, reported that if not totally eliminated from surfaces, toxic dust could be re-suspended in the air long after September 11, and "if indoor locations are not cleaned properly, there is a potential for long-term inhalation contact or ingestion contact."

According to a 2002 study by NYU's Department of Environmental Medicine, fine particulate matter "dominated the WTC impacts, as the cleanup operations proceeded, 'kicking up' WTC dust at the same time." The EPA's own Office of Research and Development issued a report one year after the collapse stating that "Individuals visiting, residing, or working in buildings not adequately cleaned… could have been subjected to repeated, long-duration exposure to many of the components from the original WTC collapse," especially pulverized glass and metals.

These dangers are not new discoveries. Both the EPA and independent environmental scientists began collecting and analyzing air and dust samples within days of the attacks and continued over the next several months. By September 28, the EPA established a WTC Multi-Agency Database to manage environmental monitoring data from both city and federal agencies.

Nevertheless, the EPA had taken only six test results from WTC dust when then-chair Christine Todd Whitman announced on September 13, "EPA is greatly relieved to have learned that there appears to be no significant levels of asbestos dust in the air in New York City." And even as monitoring data showing elevated contamination became available, the EPA's safety messages remained consistent, countering media reports and growing public awareness of health problems associated with the downtown air quality.

Within a week of the collapse, with fumes still wafting through the air, the EPA and the New York City Department of Health (DOH) was encouraging people to reoccupy apartments and offices in local buildings. DOH guidelines for residents and workers preparing to reenter buildings stated that ordinary household cleaning with a wet cloth would be sufficient to get rid of WTC dust. DOH officials also recommended vacuuming using a "high efficiency particulate air filter" to minimize dust, even though earlier EPA studies determined that this technique is insufficient for removing asbestos from indoor environments.

As late as May 2002, with the Ground Zero clean-up drawing to a close, the EPA was publicly claiming that asbestos test results either did not detect asbestos or "found levels well below the standard that EPA is applying."

But critics, both independent of and within the agency, charge that the EPA ignored alarming test results and, in some cases, selectively applied testing criteria to mask the dangers of contamination.

Cate Jenkins, a research chemist with the EPA's Hazardous Waste Identification Division, criticized her Agency's use of a relatively high industrial benchmark for determining "asbestos containing material."

Noting that this benchmark is not a health standard, Jenkins pointed to EPA research showing that indoor materials containing as little as 0.1 percent asbestos could pose a health risk. Similarly, the EPA used an airborne asbestos standard of 70 structures per square millimeter, which in fact allows for a cancer risk several thousand times higher than the Agency's own designated acceptable risk level.

A 2003 evaluation by the EPA Inspector General's office pointed out that even these flawed benchmarks were exceeded in the Agency's tests on scattered WTC dust. The EPA's released data shows that in the week following the collapse, 25 percent of the samples exceeded the one-percent asbestos level, and this figure soared to 35 percent over the next month.

Jenkins's report also asserted that the Agency chose a "cheap, antiquated method" of asbestos testing over the more sophisticated electron microscope technique, which it used on its own Lower Manhattan headquarters after September 11.

In the days following the attacks, the Ground Zero Elected Officials Task Force, a committee of state and city leaders, independently tested two local apartments for asbestos using the electron microscope method and discovered levels up to 47 and 64 times higher than the typical level for urban buildings, according to a report on the environmental aftermath of 9/11 published by the Sierra Club.

The New York Environmental Law & Justice Project's (NYELJP) independent tests in the area also indicated asbestos concentrations far exceeding the "safe" levels of under one percent that the EPA was publicizing.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) issued public statements in March 2002 that denounced the EPA's "reckless and illegal response" to the disaster. He accused the agency of "downplaying its own findings, and ignoring other contradictory findings." Crucial EPA air sampling data, he noted, was not even publicly available until the NYELJP filed a Freedom of Information Law request to obtain it.

Cleaning Up the Mess

Environmental activists, community health advocates and labor groups have struggled to raise public awareness of the indoor contamination issue, urging the EPA to take responsibility for past misconduct and also to establish a comprehensive, federally funded clean-up program for Ground Zero and all exposed surrounding areas.

In the fall of 2002, the EPA did undertake an indoor professional clean-up program, open to residents on a volunteer basis. However, the program ended up cleaning only 4,100 out of the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 residences in the designated clean-up area. No public program was available for cleaning non-residential buildings or businesses.

This December, the New York Commission for Occupational Safety and Health urged the EPA to conduct a thorough asbestos abatement procedure throughout the several-mile radius around Ground Zero.

Advocates point to the Deutsche Bank building on Liberty Street, next to Ground Zero, as just one example of the environmental hazards lingering in structures that absorbed toxins emitted in the disaster. Independent tests on the location -- fifteen stories of which were damaged by the collapse of the towers -- and on a neighboring Deutsche Bank building revealed inhalable asbestos particle concentrations 45 and 35 times higher than average concentrations in outdoor air.

The contamination included longer asbestos fibers that pose the additional danger of causing lung tissues to rupture. Scientists of the specially commissioned Deutsche Bank Health Group reported in their 2004 health-risk assessment of the Liberty Street building that airborne and dust concentrations of lead, mercury, and other damaging substances "exceeded their respective health-based benchmarks by anywhere from 1.2 to 634 times."

Community members have expressed concern not only over the conditions inside these buildings, but health threats to the surrounding neighborhood as the building owners move forward with plans for demolition as part of the World Trade Center area's redevelopment.

Responding to public concerns, US Senator Hillary Clinton (D-New York) and Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan) in turn pressured the EPA, which has promised to devise a new clean-up plan in conjunction with the WTC Expert Review Panel, an appointed advisory group of scientists and occupational health specialists.*

Community representatives have issued several demands before the panel, including that "where test results warrant, EPA will decontaminate not only the tested buildings but the neighborhoods affected by 9/11 contaminants," that the range of the testing and clean-up be expanded to include Brooklyn and other parts of Manhattan, and that the EPA support public health monitoring and treatment programs related to contamination.

The planning process for full-scale decontamination, stymied by political tensions between the agency and community members, has lumbered on for nearly a year, and some are losing hope that the EPA, given its track record, will finally meet its purported goals.

Michael Brown, an EPA associate assistant administrator for research and development, said the agency intends to carry out the plan it is currently drafting as soon as possible. "We wouldn't have a sampling plan if we didn't intend to implement it," he told TNS.

Asked about the timetable of the process, Mary Mears, the EPA's regional spokesperson, said that the EPA would "definitely" conduct at least one round of environmental tests in Lower Manhattan, "but when that starts is really going to depend on… how long it takes us to finalize the plan." She added, "There's no date certain."

However, Hugh Kaufman, a former chief investigator for the EPA Ombudsman's office, which was dissolved after it publicly criticized the Agency's handling of the disaster, called the panel "a political set-up to buy time, because they [EPA] don't want to do what they're required to do, which is clean up New York."

The panel itself is limited to an advisory role, Kaufman noted, so the EPA ultimately has the last word on how the clean-up will be implemented, if at all. When asked if he foresaw the EPA moving forward with the clean-up plan in the near future, he replied, "With this administration? Don't hold your breath."

Suzanne Mattei of the Sierra Club said local advocates were watching the EPA carefully to ensure the Agency's accountability. "We need to hear a real commitment from EPA that they're going to follow through on this and this isn't just window dressing," she said. Although she is hopeful that a clean-up plan will eventually materialize, Mattei cautioned: "The question in my mind is, how much will they listen to the community on the design of that program? Because it's very easy to put forth a plan to find nothing."

A Hazardous Precedent

With the smoke all but cleared from Ground Zero, both researchers in the scientific community and activists have acknowledged that the chaos wrought by the collapse of the World Trade Center created unimaginable obstacles to public health and security, making a coordinated response extremely difficult.

Reflecting on the disaster response effort in a 2003 assessment by the National Environmental Health Association, Dr. Lioy conceded, "No agency was prepared to deal with devastation of this magnitude in a major urban area." The issue that lingers, however, is whether the government has done all it can to fulfill its responsibility to people affected by the disaster.

Critics of the government response argue that regardless of whether the worst is behind New York or yet to come, the EPA must at any rate respond to community demands both to protect the public and to regain its trust.

"There's no question that they didn't do enough originally," said David Yassky, a member of the New York City Council representing Brooklyn, who has demanded that the EPA's future clean-up effort include his borough. Brooklyn has so far been excluded from decontamination measures, although the smoke plume from the towers passed over head for days. "What's done is done in terms of how they acted in the immediate aftermath of September 11," he said. "But now they should do what's required, what's merited."

In March 2004, workers and residents brought a lawsuit against the EPA for allegedly misinforming the public and failing to address public health hazards. Citing the Presidential Decision Directive 62 of 1998, which assigns the EPA the burden of handling environmental contamination resulting from a terrorist attack, the plaintiffs argued: "In choosing… to make material misrepresentations, and to supply and endorse unsafe cleaning instructions, [the EPA] knowingly created a health risk to the public that was foreseeable and that was independent of, and in addition to, the risk created by the WTC Collapse itself."

Kimberly Flynn, a leader of the community advocacy group 9/11 Environmental Action, said thousands will continue to suffer indefinitely because federal and city agencies ignored and covered up the dangers of Ground Zero for three years. Even if future testing shows that most of the pollution has cleared, she said, that does not mean the threat is gone, because "people remove those contaminants the old-fashioned way: in their lungs."

While environmental activists mobilize around current health issues, they are also raising awareness of past mistakes to make sure the EPA acts responsibly in the future, especially since the White House has recently moved toward further centralizing its control over federal disaster response.

From the perspective of those who believe that the government has contributed to the injustice of the September 11 attacks, the collapse of the Twin Towers did more than symbolize the beginning of a new political era for the United States; it set a dangerous precedent of unaccountability, allowing authorities to prioritize maintaining public order over protecting public health. Flynn warned, "This absolutely must never happen again, anywhere."


Part One of this series: Ground Zero: The Most Dangerous Workplace was published on January 24, 2005.
Part Two of this series: Caught in the Smoke: Employees, Residents Cope With 9/11 Fallout was published on January 31, 2005.

* The version of this article originally posted contained a superfluous sentence mistakenly inserted by an editor during the final editing process. It said that there were no signs that the EPA had such a plan in the works. The EPA insists it has such a plan in the works, but activists are concerned that it may not be forthcoming, or it may not be adequate.

2005 The NewStandard

Online sources used in this feature article:
Environmental Health Perspectives: "Characterization of the Dust/Smoke Aerosol that Settled East of the World Trade Center (WTC)..."  
Environmental Protection Agency: "EPA's WTC Residential Confirmation Cleaning Study"  
NY Committee for Occupational Safety and Health: "‘Gold Standard’ for Remediation of WTC Contaminations"  
9/11 Environmental Action: "7 Principles Letter and other documentation from 9/11 Environmental Action"  
Senator Hillary Clinton: "Clinton Joins Announcement of EPA World"  
Gotham Gazette : "Helping 9/11 Rescue Workers"  
Sierra Club: "Air Pollution and Deception at Ground Zero: How the Bush Administration's Reckless Disregard of 9/11"


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