Something’s in the Air
What You’re not Being Told about the Pollutants at Ground Zero
(Originally published March 2002 in the Indypendent)

By Mike Burke

Six months after September 11, government officials continue to insist that downtown residents and employees should not fear the environmental impact of the World Trade Center disaster. But many experts, including dissident scientists within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), describe the event as an environmental disaster on a scale unlike any city has ever seen.

“The U.S. government is imitating the Soviet Union in its handling of the aftermath,” Hugh Kaufman, the chief investigator for the EPA’s Ombudsman’s office, recently told a crowd in South Carolina. According to the Beaufort Gazette, Kaufman also added, “You are probably going to [see] tens of thousands of people die of cancer who shouldn’t have.”

Within the Big Apple, the media has remained conspicuously silent on the long-term health and environmental impact of the collapse—a recent piece on TomPaine.com accused The New York Times of missing “the single biggest air pollution story ever.” Wrote Kate Barnes, “Because the Times failed to ask hard questions, government agencies from the EPA to the city health department never came under pressure to do better.”

For six months, the federal and local governments have been more or less repeating what EPA head Christine Todd Whitman told the city on September 16: “There is no need for the general public to be concerned.” The New York Stock Exchange reopened within a week of the attack. Downtown workers and residents followed, returning to an area where a massive, uncontrolled fire still burned, spewing an unknown cocktail of toxic debris.

“I was upset because it seemed a bit like a rush to get people to live back downtown...I don’t think we’ll know for 10 years if it’s safe or not,” former downtown resident Toni Branch told the Indypendent. Soon after the attack, Branch evacuated her 30th floor studio apartment at Gateway Plaza at the corner of Liberty and South End Streets. The dust-covered apartment was later found to have a pH level of 12.1, matching the highest recorded in the city.

“The U.S. Geological Survey team found that some of the dust was as caustic as liquid drain cleaner and alerted all government agencies involved in the emergency response,” reported the St. Louis Post. But the EPA, which received the test results in late September, didn’t release the data until the St. Louis Post broke the story in mid-February.

Dissident members of the EPA and some local elected officials are accusing the administration of misleading and blatantly lying to the public about the effects of September 11. “This is utterly scandalous,” said U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who represents the district around Ground Zero. “We must find out why the EPA hid this information from the public and we must see all the data now.”

Nearly all of the available information detailing the environmental dangers has become public only due to the work of environmental watchdog groups and independent scientists. The New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, for example, forced the EPA to release test results through the Freedom of Information Act.

A team of scientists from the University of California at Davis conducted the only study of very fine particulate matter, which comprised an unusually high percentage of the total airborne debris in downtown Manhattan. “Even on the worst days in Beijing, downwind from coal-fired power plants, or in the Kuwaiti oil fires, we did not see these levels of very fine particulates,” said Thomas Cahill, a UC Davis researcher and international authority on airborne particles. Few studies have been done to determine safe levels of fine particulate matter.

In addition, no studies exist to determine how the combination of pollutants will affect the population. “The synergistic impact of multiple pollutants on human health in the aftermath of an air quality emergency such as the one that began on the day of the attacks are unknown,” the Natural Resources Defense Council reported.

Due to the high levels of fine particulate matter, the EPA Ombudsman’s office warned as recently as late February that everyone who lives or works near Ground Zero should still use respirators, especially workers at the site and all cleaning staff. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, meanwhile, waited until January to determine that all dust in the vicinity of the disaster area must be treated as “presumed asbestos-containing material,” thus requiring stringent cleanup procedures for apartments and offices.

Many fear that the number of casualties from September 11 will continue to grow. The New York Fire Department, which lost 343 men and women on September 11, continues to suffer. Tom Manley, the health and safety officer for the Uniformed Firefighters Association, has told reporters that 25 percent of the city’s 10,000 firefighters have suffered respiratory problems; 700 firefighters are on medical leave.

Day laborers and cleaning staff who work at or near Ground Zero have reported similar problems. A medical treatment center at the corner of Broadway and Barclay Street treated 400 workers between mid-January and the end of February who were “suffering nearly identical symptoms of respiratory distress related to toxic substances in World Trade Center dust and debris,” according to Newsday.

Cate Jenkins, an EPA scientist, predicts that as many as one in five day laborers who work at Ground Zero for three months or more will develop cancer. The fears of cancer extend well beyond lower Manhattan to landfills in Staten Island, city mechanic stations, used-car dealerships and even Southeast Asia.

In Staten Island, public officials acknowledged in mid-February that workers at the Fresh Kills landfill, where debris from the World Trade Center was processed, worked for five weeks without proper respirators, the Staten Island Advance reported. “Everybody was kind of left to fend for themselves,” a tractor operator at the landfill said.

Unprotected mechanics in Queens worked non-stop after September 11 to clean asbestos and other contaminants from many of the city’s 150 to 200 emergency response vehicles which responded to the attack.

“When they first started bringing these trucks in here, some were loaded with as much as two feet of white dust,” a mechanic told the Advance. “And we just dug right in.”

Used car dealerships across the region may soon be selling asbestos-filled cars recovered from the attacks to unsuspecting buyers. The city recently reversed its decision to permanently impound some 1,000 cars that were parked near the World Trade Center on that fateful day.

The car owners had threatened a class-action lawsuit against the city. The Daily News reported that many of these cars were contaminated with three times the legally permitted amount of asbestos. The paper speculated that many of the vehicles, which could be picked up starting March 18, will soon end up in the lots of used car dealerships without any health warning.

Meanwhile, protests have begun in India, where over 30,000 tons of steel from the World Trade Center have been shipped. Many fear that the wreckage could be contaminated with asbestos, PCBs, cadmium, mercury and dioxins, reports Corp Watch. Hundreds of thousands of tons of WTC steel are expected to be sold to firms in India, China and Malaysia.

As the pressure builds, the EPA has started to duck for cover. At a February 23 public hearing organized by the agency’s Ombudsman’s office, the Agency sent no official representatives, nor did the city.

To Kaufman, this spoke volumes. “When government agencies collectively decide not to answer the public’s questions…not to appear in front of a Congressional inquiry, not to come to an Ombudsman hearing, you know that they know that they have a problem.”