Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article|
Ecological Impact of 9/11
- Lingering Threats: Contamination May Still Lurk Near Ground Zero: Part Three of Three
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 governments 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
* 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
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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