Fallout: The Hidden Environmental Consequences of 9/11

On Sept. 17, 2001, less than one week after the World Trade Center collapse, tens of thousands of office workers returned to their jobs near Ground Zero after receiving the go-ahead from federal and local safety officials.

Federal and city government wanted New York and the rest of the nation, which had been virtually paralyzed in the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, to return to normal as quickly as possible. President George W. Bush, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and other leaders needed to show the world that the United States would not be intimidated by terrorism.

There was another more pressing imperative at work, however: The longer that Wall Street and the nation's chief financial markets remained closed, the greater the likelihood of a stock meltdown and perhaps long-lasting damage to investors and the U.S. economy.

To achieve a rapid return to normalcy the government needed to persuade a jittery public that it was safe for civilians to reoccupy the scores of commercial skyscrapers and residential buildings in Lower Manhattan. With uncontrolled fires still raging in the debris of the towers, with thousands of bodies still buried in the rubble, and with the trauma of the terrorist attacks still fresh in their minds, many New Yorkers were understandably reluctant to return so quickly. Nonetheless, Wall Street and much of Lower Manhattan reopened for business on September 17.

The nation's top environmental official, Christie Todd Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who had given her preliminary endorsement of the reopening a few days earlier, issued an official statement of approval on Sept. 18. "I am glad to reassure the people of New York ... that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink," she announced.

Similar assurances were given by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the New York City Department of Health. Even as they made those statements, however, officials knew that their own preliminary environmental tests of the air, dust and water in Lower Manhattan had revealed some troubling readings.

The tests found that considerable amounts of asbestos and heavy metals had been detected in dust samples throughout the area. Within a few weeks, officials would also receive the first results of aerial surveys conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) pinpointing the precise locations of hundreds of asbestos "hot spots" on rooftops, buildings and streets throughout the area, including some that were half a mile or more from the collapsed buildings. Before the end of September, the USGS would also report that dust on the ground and in the air downtown was highly caustic, with alkalinity levels that made it as potent as household drain cleaner. Health officials withheld this information from the public for several months.

Given the scale and unprecedented nature of the World Trade Center catastrophe, it is understandable that during the first few days after Sept. 11, everyone, including public health officials, was focused on guarding against any further attacks and on rescuing the thousands of victims buried beneath the rubble. Surely, no American city has ever confronted a calamity of this scale, nor has any nation faced the simultaneous release of such a complex array of toxic substances into a densely populated downtown area.

Despite their initial safety assurances on Sept. 18, officials were scampering to compile a comprehensive inventory of what contaminants or hazardous materials had been stored inside the mammoth Trade Center complex before the attacks. They needed the information to know what materials were feeding the dozens of fires burning at temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and persisting despite all efforts to extinguish them.

EPA officials and fire-fighting experts were well aware, from previous studies of a handful of spectacular and tragic fires in hotels, commercial buildings and downtown areas, that such blazes are capable of releasing a witch's brew of some of the most toxic substances known -- including mercury, benzene, lead, chlorinated hydrocarbons and dioxins. Despite this prior knowledge, federal officials rushed to dismiss or understate potential health dangers to the public and rescue workers at the site during those first few days.

Initially, the various health agencies also withheld from the public most results of their environmental testing. The state's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) refused outright to release the data, claiming that the test results were part of a "criminal investigation" -- presumably the Sept. 11 hijackings -- and the city has yet to release all of its data.

On the surface at least, the EPA was more responsive than either the city or state agencies. It began to report some of its test results on its Web page on Sept. 27. Coincidentally, that was the same day the agency learned that environmental lawyer and activist Joel Kupferman of the nonprofit New York Environmental Law and Justice Project had contacted my newspaper, the New York Daily News, and provided us with the results of independent tests he had conducted of World Trade Center debris. Kupferman's results became the first direct challenge to Whitman's all-clear pronouncements. They revealed high levels of asbestos and fiberglass in a substantial portion of the samples. From then on, the EPA sought to calm the public by publishing on its Web page summaries of daily monitoring reports for asbestos in outdoor air, and the agency eventually expanded those summaries to include the results of periodic tests for more than a dozen toxic substances. The summaries invariably highlighted those results that indicated no danger, while the agency repeatedly downplayed or withheld test results that might raise public alarm.

The federal government has never established ambient safety levels for many of the contaminants detected in air samples taken around Ground Zero. Instead of admitting they had no certainty of what danger these substances might cause, EPA risk experts at the New York regional headquarters devised ad hoc safety "benchmarks" or "removal action guidelines." They then misled the public into believing these were federally approved safety levels and reported that only a few of their test results were above these levels.

Once displaced workers and residents returned to their jobs and homes near the disaster site, a significant number of people began to suffer from respiratory and other health problems. Mark Bodenheimer was one of them. A veteran teacher at Stuyvesant High School, the city's most prestigious public school, Bodenheimer and the rest of the students and staff returned to the building, which is located a few blocks north of Ground Zero, on Oct. 9, when the city's Board of Education reopened the school for classes after conducting a $1 million asbestos cleanup.

"The air in the building smelled terrible," Bodenheimer said. "I had no respiratory problems before this, but I was back there just five days when I started getting constant sore throats and severe headaches." His doctor advised him to get out of the school. Bodenheimer, a Stuyvesant graduate who had taught there for decades, reluctantly accepted a transfer to the Bronx.

Bodenheimer was no isolated case. A survey of three residential areas near the site, conducted quietly in October by the Centers for Disease Control and the city's own health department, revealed just how widespread such symptoms were: Nearly 50 percent of those questioned reported physical problems likely to be related to the Trade Center collapse, such as nose, throat and eye irritation, and 40 percent said they were suffering from persistent coughing. Like other disturbing information about the environment around Ground Zero, the public never heard much about this survey. The results were released quietly by the health department in a press release late one Friday afternoon in January 2002 -- three months after it had been conducted -- and received virtually no media attention.

Yet there were too many people getting sick to ignore them all. According to a February 2002 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, at least l0,000 people in Lower Manhattan suffered immediate health problems from exposure to the air near Ground Zero. Faced with a massive public outcry and growing doubts about the environment, federal and local officials hunkered down and kept repeating the same line: Any respiratory problems were temporary, a result of smoke and dust from fires that would soon be extinguished. While such symptoms were discomforting, the officials claimed, they posed no serious short-term or long-term dangers.

The contaminant that got the most attention at first was asbestos, a mineral widely employed as fireproofing material before the federal government banned many of its uses in 1975. Asbestos fibers, once lodged in the lungs, can cause asbestosis, cancer and mesothelioma, a rare and fatal disease of the lining of the lung. The federal asbestos ban took effect while the Twin Towers were under construction; thus, the mineral was used for fireproofing of steel beams and insulation of pipes in approximately 40 floors of one tower and 20 floors of the other. Ever since the ban, the government has regulated removal of asbestos from buildings.

EPA rules clearly spell out when and how asbestos must be removed, but city and federal officials ignored those regulations at the Trade Center site. EPA officials misled the public about what federal regulations define as a "safety standard" for exposure to asbestos as well as what the legal requirements are for handling asbestos-contaminated matter. In fact, asbestos levels measured in many parts of Lower Manhattan were higher than those found in places like Libby, Montana-where the EPA is currently conducting a massive cleanup because of the town's widespread asbestos contamination.

News of toxic substances other than asbestos being released into the air was not made public until Oct. 26, six weeks after the collapse of the towers, when the Daily News published my front-page column on the subject. My information had been gleaned from a quick review of nearly 800 pages of EPA test data, which the agency had been forced to release after Kupferman filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Only then did EPA officials concede that their testing had found elevated levels of other contaminants, including benzene, dioxins, PCBs, lead and chromium in the air and in water draining into the Hudson River from the Trade Center. However, agency officials insisted at a City Hall press conference that such high readings had occurred only as occasional "spikes"; that they were confined almost exclusively to the immediate vicinity of the debris pile; and that they would soon disappear following the extinguishing of the fires. The fires, however, turned out to be far more difficult to put out than anyone had initially predicted. They burned for nearly four months and even in late January were still smoldering below sections of the debris pile.

In the case of dioxins, among the most toxic substances known, the EPA repeatedly told the public that its test results showed very few readings above the agency's "removal action guidelines." In fact, the EPA has no standards for safe dioxin levels in air. Faced with high-level dioxin emissions around Ground Zero more typical of a volcanic eruption, the agency's top officials in the New York region simply asked their risk assessors to devise their own removal action guidelines. They then told the public that few of its tests had exceeded those guidelines, when in fact a substantial number of them had. EPA scientists in other parts of the country were shocked when they learned that the New York region was posting safety benchmarks for dioxin that had not gone through the agency's normal peer review process.

It wasn't until December that the agency began releasing results of ambient air tests it had conducted for dioxin outside of the actual Ground Zero site. Some of those tests showed high dioxin levels as far as half a mile away from the trade center. Other agency tests showed dangerous levels of PCBs in dust nearly a mile north of Ground Zero, in an area that had been reopened to the public on Sept. 17.

"What happened here is at the level of Watergate," says Dr. Marjorie Clarke, scientist-in-residence at Lehman College in New York and an expert on dioxin and furan emissions from incinerators. "They covered up important information. It just seems to me that, from the get go, a decision had been made from some high-up government types that there is not going to be a problem here."

Federal health and safety officials were not alone in misleading the public, however. Mayor Giuliani, New York City Health Commissioner Neal Cohen and Joseph Miele of the city's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) abandoned their responsibility to safeguard the public's health and grossly neglected safety issues for thousands of rescue workers at Ground Zero.

From the first moments of the attacks, Giuliani assumed direct operational control over all aspects of the governmental response. The mayor made virtually all major announcements, whether about the death toll, the identities of officials who had perished, the progress of the rescue work, public security procedures, assessments of physical damage to Lower Manhattan, traffic restrictions for commuters, assistance to businesses and families of victims, and even dates and locations for funerals of firefighters.

Yet when it came to public health issues and environmental damage, Giuliani and his health commissioner said very little, except reiterate the EPA's assurances about air quality. It seems unlikely that Giuliani and Cohen were simply repeating what the EPA told them out of naivete. Both men had in the past evinced an arrogant-some would say reckless-disregard for public health matters. From 1999 to 2001, for instance, Giuliani spearheaded a massive pesticide-spraying campaign throughout the city to combat an outbreak of West Nile virus, first with the controversial pesticide malathion, then with the less potent but still dangerous Anvil. The spray campaign, perhaps the largest government urban pesticide experiment in U.S. history, sparked a huge public outcry when hundreds of city residents fell sick from the pesticide fumes and when thousands of fish began to turn up dead in Long Island Sound and in Staten Island's freshwater ponds.

So it should come as no surprise that after the Sept. 11 attacks a legendary hands-on administrator like Giuliani paid so little attention to the public health aspects of the tragedy. Within days of the collapse the various levels of government agreed to a division of labor on safety concerns: City Hall left the responsibility for all testing of the outside air and water around Lower Manhattan to federal and state health officials, while it assumed responsibility for checking and certifying the safety of the interior of any commercial or residential areas.

The city's portion of the work, in turn, was left to the 6,000-member DEP, an agency whose primary job is to maintain and monitor the city's vast drinking water and sewage disposal system, but that also has responsibility for handling hazardous-waste problems. The department, however, did not have nearly enough staff to cope with the pollution hazards it now confronted. Instead of admitting the problem and seeking help from other levels of government, city officials opted for allowing owners of private buildings to carry out their own testing and cleanup with little or no government oversight.

To understand the enormity of the environmental problem, we need to come to grips with the sheer size of what was destroyed on Sept. 11. The quantity of contaminants contained within the buildings is truly staggering.

Consider just one substance, lead, as an example. Lead is an extremely dangerous heavy metal. Inhaling even minute quantities of lead dust over an extended period can cause brain damage. The use of lead in paint has been banned in the United States for decades, but the interiors of many inner-city tenements still contain undercoats of it. At the Trade Center, the danger came not from lead in paint, but from lead inside computers. The average personal computer contains anywhere from four to eight pounds of lead. We know that approximately 50,000 people worked in the two towers, and that most of them used personal computers. Several thousand more worked at Seven World Trade Center, a 47-story building just north of the Twin Towers, and at other, smaller structures on the site that were also destroyed. We can thus assume that at least 10,000 PCs, in addition to hundreds of servers and mainframe computers connected to them, were pulverized into dust that day or vaporized by the fires in the subsequent months. It is likely, therefore, that a minimum of 200,000 to 400,000 pounds of lead were released into the air, ground and buildings around the site.

Even if all individual contaminants in the air had been below permissible federal safety levels, there is yet another troubling concern for many scientists, what some call the "unknown synergistic effect" of exposure to even low levels of a variety of toxic substances at one time. "There were probably a thousand or more chemicals in that soup," says industrial hygienist Monona Rossol. "No one knows how that could affect a person."

Yet for weeks after the collapse, even when hope of finding any survivors had long faded, safety officials failed to coordinate or enforce efforts to ensure that thousands of firefighters, police, and rescue and cleanup workers at the site were properly protected against toxic releases. More than 200 New York City firefighters who served at Ground Zero are now on medical leave, and as many as 700 have exhibited respiratory problems-what is now called the World Trade Center cough. Many of those have been assigned to light duty, and it is feared a good portion may never be able to fight fires again.

In addition, a troubling number of rescue workers from other parts of the country who had volunteered at Ground Zero are reporting serious health problems. In Ohio, 37 of 74 members of Ohio Task Force One, a group of emergency responders who volunteered to work at Ground Zero, have become ill since returning home. In California, 100 of 395 emergency responders who worked at Ground Zero between Sept. 12 and Oct.. 7 have filed workers' compensation claims because of illness they say is related to the World Trade Center catastrophe.

Five months after the disaster, Dr. Stephen Levin of the Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital stated that "high rates" of the hundreds of iron workers and other recovery personnel at Ground Zero examined by his center have experienced respiratory problems. Experts who have carried out long-term studies of the health effects of such fires suggest that this is only the tip of the iceberg of the health problems firefighters and rescue and cleanup workers will face in the future.

Whitman, Giuliani and other public officials should have told New Yorkers the truth from the start-that no one could guarantee the air around Ground Zero was safe because no one had ever confronted a disaster of such proportions. They should also have released all the raw data on government testing as soon as they had the results and made clear that safety levels for many of these toxins did not even exist.

The early blanket assurances that government officials issued were a grave mistake, and their continued defense of those assurances in the face of widespread public skepticism was inexcusable. Thousands of people may end up paying for that deception through unnecessary illness or premature death in the decades to come. In their rush to return New York City and Wall Street to business as usual, these shortsighted officials paved the way for a second wave of victims from the World Trade Center tragedy.

Juan Gonzalez is a columnist with the New York Daily News and a contributing editor of In These Times. This article is excerpted from "Fallout: The Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Collapse" (The New Press).


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