Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Smoke Screen
By Sigrún Davídsdóttir, The Guardian, June 5, 2002

Ground Zero has been officially cleared with the removal of the last beam from the collapsed World Trade Centre, but evidence is growing that the US government failed to warn the public about the dangers of pollution in the aftermath. Last September's attack on the World Trade Centre was the equivalent of a major explosion in a giant chemical works. Thousands of tonnes of pulverised asbestos and heavy metals billowed over lower Manhattan, leaving an estimated 2m cubic metres of dust covering 6.5 hectares [16 acres], as well as minute toxic particles in the air for months.

At the time, the US government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claimed that the pollution was not harmful. But there is increasing evidence that it was extremely serious and that the dangers facing the 50,000 people who live in lower Manhattan, and the 400,000 others working within a mile of Ground Zero, were deliberately underplayed by the authorities to prevent panic and even to save money. Following accusations that the government grossly mishandled the disaster and acted illegally, the EPA's general ombudsman for hazardous material has now resigned in protest at the way the agency operated, and in a new development, the EPA has agreed to test some buildings and decontaminate them.

One of the main concerns is asbestos. It is unclear exactly how much was in the twin towers and other buildings at Ground Zero, but it is known that 5,000 tonnes had been sprayed on to the first 40 floors of one of the towers before it was banned in new construction in New York in 1970. It was also used heavily in ceiling tiles. If even the smallest quantities of asbestos are inhaled, they can remain in the lungs for a long period risking severe health problems.

However, the EPA, which in normal circumstances insists on very high decontamination standards and is quick to warn of the dangers of non-professional clean-ups, was reassuring throughout: "[We are] greatly relieved to have learned that there appears to be no significant levels of asbestos dust in the air in New York City," said EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman two days after the attack.

In the following weeks and months, the EPA continued to claim that the air in lower Manhattan was safe. However, independent researchers sampling the dust in the weeks that followed the explosions, found quantities of up to 4% asbestos in some dust and air samples. The US Geographical Survey found inorganic carbon, carbonate carbon, and sulphur in the dust as well as copper, lead, zinc, titanium and glass fibres containing silicon, aluminium, magnesium, and other elements.

The pollution was far worse than in the Gulf war, according to University of California atmosphere researcher Thomas Cahill, who led a team investigating the pollution for the department of energy. "The particles were really weird. They came in great big spikes when the wind blew, then they'd die down, then spike up again. The particles that aren't soluble, like silicon from burning glass, are the ones that can lodge in your lungs, irritate them badly and stay there," he said. "The ruins of the twin towers became a screamingly hot chemical reactor," Cahill told the San Francisco Chronicle. "For weeks, even as the flames eased and the core of the towers cooled below 1,200 degrees, the steel was still glowing red at 800C and clouds of particles were still rising.

"Those particles simply shouldn't have been there, because it rained heavily for six days in September and the coarse particles should have settled down. But they were probably still being generated from the heat in the pile of debris," he said.

Among the fine and very fine metal particles rising from the rubble, for which the EPA had set no health guidelines, were iron from the girders, titanium from the concrete, vanadium and nickel as well as copper and zinc. The National Contingency Plan (NCP), the federal government's blueprint for responding to hazardous releases, would normally pay for the clean-up of a contaminated area when no responsible party can be identified. But in October, it delegated the clean-up of indoor spaces to the New York City Department of Health, which in turn decided that landlords and flat-owners should be responsible for the cleaning.

The EPA is now accused of not declaring a health alert and not warning people doing the clean-up of the dangers. "Just like others, the EPA did not want to believe there was any problem and thought the problem might just go away if it was ignored," says Joel Kupferman, an environmental lawyer in New York. Kupferman believes that the directions came from Washington, reflecting the political wish to downplay the effect of the attack.

"There were people working for federal government and the city who wanted to wear masks at work in Manhattan, but they were told not to do it because it would scare others. There was an unwillingness to admit that anything could interfere with the American way of life. And the real estate and insurance business has huge interests in downplaying the health effects," he says.

While protected workers cleaned up streets and outdoor spaces, the indoor cleaning was done largely by amateurs. The EPA and the city posted clean-up advice on their websites, but this suggested only that people use wet mops to prevent dust from rising. Although health experts advised people not to exercise out of doors and said that children were the most vulnerable, neither the EPA nor the New York Department of Health stressed this.

Professional asbestos cleaning of a Manhattan flat ranges from $20,000-$26,000, but many people found that because the EPA downplayed the hazards of cleaning up the dust, landlords and insurance companies refused to pay for professional cleaning. Many immigrants, working for close to minimum wages, were hired to clean the dust out of offices and were given no special training or safety equipment. The nightmare facing many New Yorkers now is that their apartments and offices may still be contaminated and whole buildings may have to be professionally cleaned.

Even those working at Ground Zero were badly advised, it is claimed. For the first 25 days, a group of 800 policemen at the site were given only paper masks on which was printed: Warning, this mask does not protect your lungs. From the beginning, EPA's reassuring messages contrasted with strong anecdotal evidence of people suffering from respiratory problems, asthma, sinus infections and headaches. In one team of 79 firefighters, 70% reported being sick and of those almost half reported chronic coughs. Health workers still talk of "Ground Zero syndrome".

Many companies and individuals turned to independent experts for sampling and advice. Their results suggested that contamination inside buildings posed the most serious health threats. They also suggested that the EPA's sampling methods ignored the very fine, pulverised particles, which may be more harmful than bigger ones because they can penetrate deeper into the lungs. Jerrold Nadler, Congressman for lower Manhattan, claims that by ignoring the evidence the EPA broke the law and gave wrong information. "I can understand that workers worked without respirators for the first days, but someone bears the responsibility that it went on for a month," he says.

Robert Martin, the EPA's general ombudsman for hazardous material, was equally worried. Seeing people being left to their own devices by EPA he started his own investigation. "Even as the EPA was claiming it had no authority to order the clean-up of private property in Manhattan it was organising a thorough clean-up of the town of Libby in Montana [which had been heavily contaminated by asbestos from a nearby mine]," he said. Martin organised two hearings where scientists, residents and workers testified to the pollution. But EPA officials refused to attend and a spokesperson for Whitman, the EPA director, said the agency did "not believe . . . hearings on this issue [would] be productive" and dismissed them as "pure theatre".

"EPA staff always attended my hearings, but to my great surprise no one from EPA turned up. There has been reticence on the part of the government to grasp the problem, also due to the financial consequences," says Martin, who has now resigned in protest at EPA policy in Manhattan.

The EPA has now assumed some responsibility for a clean-up, offering to take samples and clean up certain areas if necessary. However, critics say the EPA should not limit the offer. Increasingly, there is anger that funds to search for Osama bin Laden have been limitless, but barely forthcoming for the people of Manhattan. The fact that EPA took no action to clean up at an early stage, they fear, may be reflected in the health statistics for Manhattan in years to come.


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