Title Page Previous Next Contents | Part 3. Was environmental health protected on 9/11? Whistleblowers, watchdogs and wee little people >Reassuring residents

Reassuring residents


When the attack on the WTC caused the buildings to begin collapsing, federal, state and local officials all began monitoring the air to check the dust and smoke for dangerous substances, as this report describes. But just how good was the environmental health information that agencies accrued and gave to people after the terrorist attacks?

 

Within a few weeks after the incident, with the WTC still in a raging fire, many people living in the neighborhoods surrounding Ground Zero were fearful about asbestos and other toxins that might be in the smoke and air they were breathing. Asbestos, fiberglass, benzene, dioxins, Freon, PCBs and heavy metals were just a few of the toxicants residents were concerned about. Some even debated whether the whole area should be designated a Superfund site, based on the volume of debris and particulates in the air. (1) Months later, the levels of asbestos in dust would be described as higher than that in Libby, Montana, a federal Superfund site.

 

 

EPA’s then-Administrator Christie Whitman said, “Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C., that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink.”

 

 

Yet health and environmental officials had quickly allayed initial concerns about the safety of the air around the World Trade Center site, as mentioned.  On September 16, only several days after the events, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and EPA’s then-administrator Christie Whitman gave residents and office workers the “all clear” sign that the environment was safe.

 

The day of the disaster, within hours, as the last chapter details, local, state and federal environmental officials began testing the air, water and dust. After several days, the federal EPA proclaimed the environment basically “safe,” at least outside the immediately affected area.


EPA’s Christie Whitman said, “Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C., that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink.” New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has said that tests of air and water have turned up “no significant problems.”


Nevertheless, word was leaking out that conditions in and around the site were still hazardous. Some were convinced that the area contained potent hazards.

"It's not safe, and what's proof of this is that medical clinics have diagnosed people with occupational asthma already and other respiratory problems, people that not only work down there but live down there," Joel Kupferman, executive director of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, told CNN. (2)

Some officials monitoring air, water and soil admitted that pollutants did “climb to hazardous levels” on occasion. "The further you get from the site, the data does not demonstrate significant risks to people," William J. Muszynski, acting regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency told a reporter for CNN. "I think you can sensationalize -- I mean, I think you can look at the numbers, a spike, and believe that number is overly significant," the EPA's Muszynski said. "Most of what we do is based on long-term exposure."

Tests of soil in the immediate vicinity of the World Trade Center did show elevated levels of asbestos in one of four soil and debris samples, Chris Paulitz of EPA told MSNBC. “So officials plan to keep up the monitoring,” he said, to ensure that concentrations do not reach high enough levels to cause respiratory ills. Rain was washing away some of the heavy particulates in the air, he said.

Understandably, in this climate of confusion, the city Department of Health was besieged by phone calls from residents and others. In its own communications, the DOH was not quite so definite as EPA’s Whitman had been. While encouraging people to move back to their homes and restore their lives to normalcy, the city urged citizens to take precautions with dust and ash, Sandra Mullin of the city’s Department of Health told MSNBC Online, “to protect people with underlying respiratory problems.” The agency advises “simple housekeeping tips like removing shoes, keeping windows closed and changing filters in air conditioners.” (3)

While the official word was that ordinary citizens were at no real risk from being in contact with the ash and dust remains of the trade towers, others thought far more precautions should be taken.

 “Hazards are being swept under the rug in the interests of restoring calm. You have every reason to be concerned when they don’t give you the data.”

From the beginning, Kupferman, for example, was a strong advocate for more public right to know and greater precaution.  “Hazards are being swept under the rug in the interests of restoring calm,” claimed Joel Kupferman, a lawyer with the nonprofit Environmental Law and Justice Project, who faults the city for failing to make public its measurements of toxins in the air and dust. “You have every reason to be concerned when they don’t give you the data,” he charged. (3)

At the time, of course, there was no dearth of air quality monitoring in and around the site. The U.S. EPA was monitoring the area’s outdoor air for asbestos and particulate matter and for levels of asbestos in the dust. And the state Department of Environmental Conservation was also adding to that effort with further measurements of fine particulates.

But controversy ensued over whether government scientists were testing for precisely the right chemicals, or, whether they were deliberately withholding information from the public.

Kupferman filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get data about the EPA's monitoring of pollutants, but both his group and the Queens-based Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, were unsuccessful in getting environmental monitoring data from government agencies. “They even declined our Freedom of Information Act request,” Kupferman told MSNBC.

Some environmental experts expressed concern that other substances besides asbestos were of greater concern shortly after the attacks. Asbestosis, the scarring of the lung from exposure to asbestos fibers, according to biologist Peter deFur, who teaches at the Center for Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, takes prolonged exposure to asbestos.

“The larger problems are heavy metals and organic compounds,” deFur told MSNBC on Sept. 26,  two weeks after the catastrophic attacks. Mercury, lead, copper, nickel, cadium, chromium, dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls [PCBs] could all be present in the air because of the materials found in everyday office equipment, from copiers and printers to computers and electrical equipment. (3)

Several organizations began doing their own independent tests, unsatisfied with government reports and an inability to get monitoring data from government agencies.  Kupferman took samples of dust and debris and found not just asbestos at levels (3 percent) similar to those found by EPA—4.5 percent, or 4.5 times the safe level—but also high levels (15 percent) of fiberglass, the substance used to replace it, and other types of mineral fiber (65 percent), MSNBC reported.

Although fiberglass is not as dangerous as asbestos, pulmonologist Neil Schachter, medical director of respiratory care at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, told MSNBC, “We do not as yet know what the health consequences of breathing fiberglass fibers are.” It is known that direct contact with fiberglass fibers can irritate the skin, nose and throat, however, and according to the American Lung Association, “There is a possibility that these fibers cause permanent damage to the lungs or airways, or increase the likelihood of developing lung cancer.”

Newsweek also reported on a new study by independent researchers who suggested that more asbestos was released than EPA tests were revealing, in a finer-particle, more hazardous form. In a Newsweek web exclusive October 5, 2001, David France described the study by the Virginia firm HP environmental and its findings that the force of the building collapse shattered asbestos into fibers too small to be picked up by standard EPA testing methods. “This stuff was just crushed, just pulverized,” lead author Hugh Granger told the magazine. “As it turns out, when we now measure and look for these very small fibers in the air and buildings, we find them, and we find them in uniquely elevated concentrations.” (4)

By October 5th, tens of thousands of workers had returned to offices on Wall Street and the Financial District, while some 12,000 of the 20,000 displaced residents were now back in their homes.

Juan Gonzalez also reported a story on the wide array of toxic chemicals in the dust -- in an Oct. 26, 2001, front-page column, with a tabloid cover that screamed “A Toxic Nightmare at a Disaster Site." His story detailed the EPA tests' findings of notable quantities of hazardous benzene, as well as dioxin levels discharged from a sewer pipe into the Hudson River that were more than five times higher than any previously recorded in New York Harbor. (5)

By October 5th, Newsweek reported, tens of thousands of workers had returned to offices on Wall Street and the Financial District, while some 12,000 of the 20,000 displaced residents were now back in their homes. (4)

New York, NY—Oct 4, 2001

Photo: Andrea Booher/FEMA News Photo

This had pulmonary health experts increasingly worried. Dr. Alan Fein, chief of pulmonary and critical-care medicine at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, said he had treated five patients with what he calls “World Trade Center syndrome,” respiratory distress stemming from relatively brief exposures of a day or two near the collapsed buildings. And he expects there will be more. “We probably will find out a lot more about the health aspects of asbestos from this event, unfortunately,” he says.

 

Many critics close to the issue argued that EPA health professionals didn’t had enough data to be able to advise the public and first responders on potential hazards, and therefore misled the public with respect to those hazards. Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez charged that EPA and state and local officials had concealed the dangers of the dust to reassure a jittery public facing a terrorist assault, and to reopen the stock market to avoid deeper damage to the U.S. economy.

 

"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," wrote Gonzalez in his book "Fallout: The Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Collapse" (The New Press). (6)

Whatever it was in the air, alone or in combination with other pollutants, the dust was starting to sicken people in the community. The first shot was probably heard in October or November when the chemically sensitive community began emailing its members about evidence of greater asthma and respiratory ills, and warning people of the need to guard against “environmentally induced injuries and autoimmune diseases” that might be triggered.

“There are no scientific papers detailing the creation, dispersion, and long and short-term effects of a tragedy of this magnitude,” wrote the Coalition, “911 ASH” (Air Safety Hazards). “Asbestos and fiberglass are clearly present, as is soot; fine particles known to increase the incidence and symptoms of asthma, heart disease, and other medical conditions. What are rarely mentioned are the myriad toxins in the smoke itself. Since no one knows exactly what this particular combination of plastics, PVC, office furniture, carpet, Freon, natural gas, jet fuel, metals, asbestos, glass, fiberglass, and other components of the office buildings do when incinerated, it is impossible to fully test for toxic exposures.” (7)

A study in the Mortality and Morbidity Report a year later would summarize the results of a telephone survey conducted among Manhattan residents 5-9 weeks following the attacks showing that among the 13% of adult respondents with asthma, 27% reported experiencing more severe asthma symptoms after September 11.

"People feel like they are not getting a clear picture from the authorities."


Concerns over potential health risks surrounding exposure to World Trade Center smoke and dust didn’t really erupt until weeks after the disaster, some time after EPA and Mayor Giuliani had made their pronouncements of safety. Sometime in October 2001, community newspapers began reporting local disgruntlement and confusion, and even some fierce objections to the government’s handling:

 

 “Many of the people closest to the World Trade Center relief efforts are not satisfied with how government agencies are handling the cleanup. There appear to be a lot of gaps. In particular, residents, workers and advocates have expressed concern about the lack of coordination, and the lack of information, on environmental health issues at Ground Zero and the neighborhoods around it,” wrote Michael Burger, the author of an article in Gotham Gazette - October 22, 2001. (8)

"People feel like they are not getting a clear picture from the authorities," Foster Maer, a downtown resident and member of the Warren-Murray Street Task Force told the Gazette. "To the extent that information is being released people are not getting it. And there is probably a lot of information not even being released."

While neighborhoods were expressing concerns, discussions were ongoing in the medical community. Mt. Sinai Hospital’s Department of Community and Preventive Medicine jumped into the fray, educating its patients and the public on the medical implications of the disaster. Robin Solomon and Margaret Pastuszko said they’d received many calls, especially from the media, about air pollution.

 

“We have also received 200 - 300 inquiries about the possibility of a bio-terrorist attack and about the advisability of stockpiling antibiotics or vaccines to counteract such an attack,” they reported. “Our message here has been to reassure people that the City of New York is keenly aware of the possibility of bioterrorism and that they and investigators from the Centers for Disease Control are monitoring the situation extremely closely. To date, there is no evidence of an attack.”

 

“No one was sick in the beginning of the Gulf War, but as time went on they developed illnesses. I can only imagine that the same thing could happen here.”

Physicians also started seeing an increased number of patients with respiratory ailments - coughing, wheezing, sore throats, bronchitis, new cases of asthma or its exacerbation, reported the National Library of Medicine. It also reported that, at the same time, elevated levels of mercury have been found in the blood of several police officers that had been assigned to the site

 “In the wake of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, the potential for environmental health risks to residents and workers in lower Manhattan has been a topic of considerable concern among both the public and the scientific community,” wrote the New York Academy of Sciences several months after the events.

Its community forum held Oct. 18, for example, featured Dr. Paolo Toniolo, of NYU School of Medicine, who discussed the complex context of this disaster, a densely populated urban area living in conditions of high stress, “including emotional stress, displacement and economic hardships, and future uncertainties; the possibility of exposure to a wide variety of pollutants; and the limited information so far on exposure.”

There was also a fierce critique of the absence of safeguards for workers. Tom Barnett, a Manhattan police officer and a trustee of the city’s Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, who was on the scene of the wreckage in the beginning, says that many police, fire and other rescue workers went unprotected in the first few days after the catastrophe. He fears that many could develop illnesses as a result.


“There were too many to count down there,” said Barnett, who added, “No one was sick in the beginning of the Gulf War, but as time went on they developed illnesses. I can only imagine that the same thing could happen here.” (9)

 

Within a few weeks, addressing what the group felt to be an absence of leadership from OSHA, The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health published several fact sheets for workers and others engaged in the cleanup and restoration effort detailing a host of hazards from toxic ash to blood-borne disease risks.

Meanwhile, the Ground Zero Elected Officials Task Force called for a single agency to monitor environmental safety and to respond to concerns of nearby residents and businesses. The task force was especially concerned about the dust on rooftops and buildings, as well as the collateral dust spread by trucks transporting the debris.