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rom the time two hijacked passenger jets crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center, gouging them setting them afire, and another jet crashed into the Pentagon, triggering the closings of airports nationwide and deployment of emergency personnel in the wake of the terrorist attack, the first concern was saving lives and finding clues to the nature of the terrorist attack.

However, it wasn’t long before environmental and public health concerns rose to the fore. In fact, September 11 will go down in history not only as the first major act of terrorism on our shores but also as the country’s worst environmental health disaster.

Photo: Paul Olivier

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacks on two of the largest office buildings. But the lessons learned there apply to any facility that might be the target of a future terrorist attack—airports, hospitals, bridges, tunnels, military bases, amusement parks, electric power plants, theaters, sports arenas, embassies and myriad other locations that have been identified. Close on the heels of the terror attacks, the anthrax scares that followed made us all aware of the need for an early warning system of disease tracking and a well-prepared, effective public health infrastructure that can respond quickly and effectively to any outbreaks in ways that individual doctors and hospitals cannot on their own.

By anyone’s reckoning, the World Trade Center disaster moved health experts into uncharted territory.

All of the agencies that sprang into action acknowledged that they were unprepared for it. Such federal agencies as the EPA and CDC were at pains to respond to the disaster, as were the city agencies of health and environmental protection.

The attack on the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11, 2001 and the subsequent magnitude of the destruction and loss of life at the World Trade Center Complex created “an emergency response, rescue, and recovery effort of enormous proportions,” wrote the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). “The terrorist attack also created one of the largest waste sites our country has ever seen. New York City (NYC), state, and many federal disaster response organizations in addition to thousands of volunteers and other support organizations quickly responded.”(1)

But workers who toiled in the rubble of the World Trade Center were injured at “unacceptable” levels because they weren’t adequately protected while there, according to Joseph “Chip” Hughes, director of the Worker Education and Training Program at NIEHS.(2) The “pile” at the WTC was openly described as a horrific and dangerous place by those who visited and worked there. “The World Trade Center site is potentially the most dangerous workplace in the United States,” said John Henshaw, Assistant Secretary of OSHA in a press release. (3)

In late November, as fires still burned, Vice Chairman John Cavanagh of AMEC, one of the four contractors at Ground Zero, described the worksite as “longest commercial fire that has ever occurred at a site.” What kept the fire burning, he said, was a huge volume of “plastic, carpet and furniture below the rubble,” which the New York Fire Department was “constantly wetting down.”

The smoldering fire at Ground Zero represented the longest running commercial fire at a worksite in history.

The attack on Washington, D.C. attack differed in size, scale and response needs. And there were some inherent advantages for responders at the Pentagon, where the health impact was far smaller, and more diffuse, because what smoke and dust came off the impact area—far smaller in volume—had a much larger area in which to disperse. Set apart from residential areas, while sitting close to federal military and environmental agencies, the environmental health challenges could be far more easily addressed. Situated at the center of a spaghetti of highways, the disaster at the Pentagon posed a bigger transportation gridlock challenge, however. 

The response to the Pentagon was more coordinated and quickly shored up—and they even had an “after-action” report done within several months of the tragedy.

By contrast, the impacts of the terror attacks at the World Trade Center were far bigger in scale than the Pentagon, and presented unique challenges for environmental health officials. The attack at ‘Ground Zero’ hit in the heart of the city, a very densely populated area, with difficult transportation access.

While there are many differences, both events shared certain challenges that made them different from other health emergencies or disasters.

Both events were much larger in scale than any experienced before, as well as more devastating in impact, with mass casualties, short term and long term health effects, and a greater range of hazards all at once—i.e. worker hazards, respiratory hazards, smoke and dust. In both places, there was an unprecedented array of hazards—air, water, dust, debris, and waste removal. The pollutants presented unique challenges—asbestos, for example. Because the World Trade Center towers were built before asbestos was prohibited in 1980, the material could be found in parts of the building; yet EPA had never regulated it as an outdoor pollutant and therefore had no standard for it. 

There were also traditional environmental health concerns and routine public health checks—food handling, sanitation, etc.—that needed to be tended to while managing the crisis. Plus the crisis triggered other secondary threats—like potential rat and vermin problems and infectious disease outbreaks.

Furthermore, both required a much bigger response than heretofore and more coordination among other agencies (some of which weren’t used to communicating), as well as more complicated need to communicate with the public.

Both of these incidents required coordination with emergency response officials at EPA and coordination with worker safety departments. But agencies with past experience collaborating in natural disasters or hazardous materials incidents in this case had greater difficulty. At the Pentagon, for example, EPA noted that local responders failed to recognize its crucial role in emergency response.

At the same time, public health professionals in these disasters began working with more law enforcement and military people. Unlike other natural disasters where environmental health professionals would have been called in, the World Trade Center and Pentagon disasters were considered crime scenes.

 “When disaster strikes you will be called upon to be there 24 hours a day,” says Ron Burger, Public Health Advisor for National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC). “What’s different now is that you will have people standing behind you carrying guns.” (4)

While there are many differences, the events at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon shared certain challenges that made them different from other health emergencies or disasters.

While many observers were quick to commend the cleanup effort, environmental health agencies have drawn an equal number of critics. The condition of New York’s environment in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks became the subject of heated debate in Manhattan. EPA maintained that their studies showed the air and water were safe, while the public, local politicians and even EPA’s own ombudsman charged that the environmental health concerns were downplayed in the interests of “getting the nation back to work.”

“A driving force and priority in this crisis was to re-open the downtown area especially Wall Street. Public health was not government's main priority when the Mayor announced that Wall Street would be open the following Monday—only six days after the collapse,” charges Joel Shufro, Director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. “These decisions were made at the highest levels—probably at the White House. Politics, not public health, was in command.” (5)

On the eve of the two-year anniversary of the terror attacks, the Environmental Protection Agency released an evaluation of the agency’s response to the incidents that gave credence to critics who said the government downplayed risks and returned people to their homes and offices prematurely.

The Environmental Protection Agency's Inspector General released a headline-grabbing report (6) on 21 Aug 2003, revealing that, at the insistence of the White House, the EPA presented “an overriding message that there was no significant threat to human health” even though there was cause for caution. Specifically, the agency reassured people that the air was safe to breathe when, in fact, it didn't have enough evidence to make that call so quickly.


Today the debate continues, as many New York citizens voice continued concern about the potential toxicity of lingering dust in indoor areas of their apartments, and office workers, too, fear the safety of their indoor environments. Even though the EPA Inspector General, in her report, sided with local critics of the government’s response, EPA now seems reluctant to go any further to meet residents’ demands.


Yet even now, the OIG is urging the EPA to re-launch a new systematic program to make sure the agency’s apartment cleaning does reduce residents’ exposure to indoor pollutants. As in future terrorist events, the EPA is tasked under a 1998 Presidential Decision Directive, according to the OIG, “with the leadership role in cleaning up buildings and other sites contaminated by chemical or biological agents as a result of terrorism.” (6)


“When disaster strikes you will be called upon to be there 24 hours a day,” says Ron Burger. “What’s different now is that you will have people standing behind you carrying guns.”


In the ugly event that we are to suffer another terrorist incident, how well would another city or town respond in conjunction with other government agencies?


We are not trying to lay blame or point fingers but assess the response and the lessons that can be gained. We hope it will help professionals face the multiple-faceted challenge posed by the "War on Terrorism."


Our methodology in this report was to review actions taken by agencies concerned with environmental health in New York City and the District of Columbia as well as reactions from the public at large and other institutions involved.


To do this we interviewed key people in the field about what they did, looked over available public documents and identified basic themes, and surveyed the social history of these events in the media and among various advocacy groups. From this, we developed a list of issues and critiques generated since these critical events and presented a litany of “lessons learned.”


We also included, where possible, excerpts of other “lessons learned” analyses, since most government agencies reviewed their activities with respect to their September 11th response, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Worker Education and Training Program at the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (WETP). EPA concluded in a 2002 report, for example, “Although the attacks did not involve weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the results were a series of disasters on a scale greater than EPA had ever encountered in emergency response.” (7)


The report is organized chronologically.


First, we revisit the actual events involved in the terrorist attacks and the immediate emergency actions of first responders, looking specifically at the various agencies charged with health and environmental issues surrounding 9/11—the cleanup, air quality monitoring, communication with the public, etc.—that worked with them.


Second, we review the array of challenges before New York, Washington, D.C. and nation in trying to come to grips with this crisis and in trying to return their cities to normalcy, starting from the initial crisis stage and progressing through to the various phases of recovery. What were the various environmental health challenges and how were they met? What were some of the secondary threats that emerged as a result of the disrupted infrastructure? We also examine environmental professionals’ own assessments of their tasks and challenges and how they met them.


September 11 crystallized the importance of environmental health. It also signaled the rise of this discipline on a par with other emergency response professions.


Third, we examine the response of the community and the public to the government’s handling of the crisis and the controversies over various issues, as well as some expert opinions on gaps and vulnerabilities in the system of assuring public health and environmental protection.


Fourth, we look at ‘lessons learned,’ compiled from the comments of experienced disaster response experts, officials involved in environmental health protection and remediation, private consultants engaged in studying the aftermath and others with firsthand knowledge of the events.


In many ways, September 11 crystallized the importance of environmental health and the various professionals engaged in this field and signaled the rise of this discipline on a par with other emergency response professions.


Yet it encompasses difficult professions to explain because they are obscure—like industrial hygiene. “Nobody knows or understands what you do, and you seldom get to see the real results of your work,” wrote Mike Plagge, an industrial hygiene advisor for American Superconductor in Middleton, WI., in The Synergist, the publication of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. “It’s not glamorous like being a firefighter or a doctor. How often does someone thank you for preventing an occupational disease?”


All that has changed since September 11th,  (8). Most agree that has forever ratcheted up the relative importance of public health and environmental health in relation to other aspects of concern, from real estate and property damage to medical preparedness.


 “There is more awareness now about what it takes to protect the public and how important the role of the environment is,” says Alison Geyh, Assistant Professor, Environmental Health Sciences, Johns Hopkins University; one of the key public health researchers who braved fumes and dust to investigate the hazards at Ground Zero. (9)


That has raised the profile for environmental health professionals of all stripes. 


As painful as it is to look back to the events of September 11th it is imperative that we do so that we might be better prepared for any comparable act of terrorism or natural disaster in the future,” said New York Congressman Major Owens at a congressional hearing held in April 2002 at Borough of Manhattan Community College, New York City. (10). “The tragedy provides us with a portal to evaluate how well our public health regulatory framework worked to protect workers and members of the public from occupational and environmental hazards posed by the collapse of the World Trade Center.”




(1)     NIEHS, http://www.wetp.org/wtc/WETP%20WTC%20Report.pdf

(2)     Joseph ‘Chip’ Hughes, http://www.wetp.org/newsbriefs/oct01/nb26oct01.htm

(3)     Henshaw, John/  http://www.asse.org/groundzero1.htm#wtc

(4)     Burger, personal communication.

(5)     Shufro, press release

(6)     Evaluation Report, “EPA’s Response to the World Trade Center Collapse: Challenges, Successes and Area for Improvement,” August 21, 2003, Report 2003-P-00012, by Nikki L. Tinsley





(7) EPA wrote in its report (February 2002):

 “On September 11, 2002, EPA responded to environmental threat created by three terrorist incidents: at the New York World Trade Center (WRC), at the Pentagon, and in Western Pennsylvania. EPA’s mission was to protect frontline responders and residents from dust and contaminants released when commercial aircraft were deliberately crashed. Although the attacks did not involve weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the results were a series of disasters on a scale greater than EPA had ever encountered in emergency response.”


Footnote: “Many federal, state and local entities, however, failed to sufficiently recognize and understand EPA’s role, mission and capability as part of an emergency response with environmental and human health consequences.” (p. 61, Draft Report).

(8) Christine Umbrell, The Synergist quotes an IH professional who says, “In the past, a lot of responders were not familiar with industrial hygiene. After Sept. 11, the perspective changed: The value and need for skills the IH provides have become very visible.” For example, Aton suggests, responders need to know the most appropriate detection equipment and PPE for use in the middle of a smoldering pit when another explosion could occur. “The people who can best answer that type of question are in the IH community.”




(9) Geyh, personal communication

(10) Owen, Borough of Manhattan Community College

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