in the Air
What Youre not Being Told about
the Pollutants at Ground Zero
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
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
EPAs Ombudsmans 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
Within the Big Apple, the media has remained conspicuously silent
on the long-term health and environmental impact of the collapsea
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
EPA to the city health department never came under pressure to do
For six months, the federal and local governments have been more
or less repeating what EPA head Christine Todd Whitman told the city
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
I was upset because it seemed a bit like a rush to get people
to live back downtown...I dont think well know for 10 years
if its safe or not, former downtown resident Toni Branch
told the Indypendent. Soon after the attack, Branch evacuated her
floor studio apartment at Gateway Plaza at the corner of Liberty
and South End Streets. The dust-covered apartment was later found
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, didnt
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
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 Ombudsmans
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
officer for the Uniformed Firefighters Association, has told reporters
that 25 percent of the citys 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
In Staten Island, public officials acknowledged in mid-February that
workers at the Fresh Kills landfill, where debris from the World
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
Unprotected mechanics in Queens worked non-stop after September 11
to clean asbestos and other contaminants from many of the citys
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 agencys Ombudsmans
office, the Agency sent no official representatives, nor did the
To Kaufman, this spoke volumes. When government agencies collectively
decide not to answer the publics questions
not to appear
in front of a Congressional inquiry, not to come to an Ombudsman
you know that they know that they have a problem.
Mike Burke is a reporter and editor with the Indypendent,
the monthly newspaper of the New York City Independent Media Center,
which he helped found in the fall of 2000. He lives in Brooklyn. This
article originally appeared in the Indypendent, March 2002, and is reprinted
with kind permission. Vist www.nyc.indymedia.org
or call (212) 684-8112 to learn more.