Health Hazards Rise from the Dust of the World Trade Center

In his column of July 19th in the New York Daily News Juan Gonzalez reported that the polluted air at Ground Zero seems to have claimed two more victims. The story adds to his chronicle of how heroes of events following the attack on the World Trade Center — and just ordinary people — were harmed by those who should have been protecting them.

On June 22nd, Fred Ghussin, an Arabic-speaking detective in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, who had worked on all of the city’s biggest Middle East terrorist cases over nearly two decades, died at the age of 58. Three days later George Allen, 47, a former inspector with the federal Occupational and Safety Health Administration, succumbed in Denver after a two-year battle with colon cancer.  

Ghussin and Allen never met but each was convinced that his illness had the same origin — exposure to toxins in lower Manhattan after 9/11. In Ghussin’s case the New York City Retirement system agreed. Last November the system’s board ruled that his cancer had been caused by on-the-job exposure and awarded him an accident disability pension. Allen, who spent just a week at Ground Zero after 9/11, had monitored the safety of many rescue and recovery workers. He died while still locked in a battle to overturn the federal government’s denial of his application for workman’s compensation. Both Ghussin and Allen said they started suffering respiratory problems immediately after spending time at or near Ground Zero.

In the hours following the terrorist attacks on the (World Trade Center) WTC firefighters, police, and emergency medical technicians performed acts of enormous courage. Many of them died or were exposed to health-threatening substances while performing these heroic deeds. Unfortunately, while bureaucrats were unctuously praising these heroes, irresponsible and deceptive post-attack actions by some officials paved the way for more illnesses and deaths among workers and residents in Lower Manhattan. "What happened here is at the level of Watergate," charged Dr. Marjorie Clarke, scientist-in-residence at Lehman College in New York and an expert on toxic emissions.

Clarke’s charge is quoted in Gonzalez’s book Fallout, the product of his in-depth investigation of initial handling of the WTC collapse. He turned up outrageous disregard for the health and welfare of rescue workers, residents, and others, raising fears that these people would pay a terrible price. Accumulating evidence, including for example the experience of Ghussin and Allen, shows that the price has been tragically high, and will continue to rise far into the future.    

Although it took some time to be completed, a report by the Inspector General (IG) of the EPA confirmed abundant but scattered unofficial observations that the agency often misled New Yorkers about the risks that the collapse of the WTC buildings posed to their health. But the most shocking revelation was that the EPA suppressed warnings about the deadly pollution at White House direction. Reflecting on the IG’s report Joel Shufro of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) concluded that it "clearly places responsibility on the White House for the sickness of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of workers and Lower Manhattan residents."

Despite reassurances from federal, state, and city agencies — unquestioningly accepted by most local press — that the air and water were safe, a significant number of people began to suffer from respiratory and other health problems, as displaced workers and residents returned to their jobs and homes near the disaster site. A few nongovernmental organizations made measurements of contaminant concentrations that contrasted sharply with agency assertions. In Fallout Gonzalez reported that air-monitoring tests by a team from the University of California at Davis revealed air pollution levels worse than during the oil fires in Kuwait after the Gulf War. The UC Davis scientists recorded these levels one mile north of the WTC, at a station that wasn’t even in the path of the path of the prevailing winds.

Fallout describes the thousands of rescue workers as abandoned heroes, praised yet treated as so much expendable fodder. Gonzalez notes "top city and federal officials failed to enforce even the most basic health and safety procedures at the World Trade Center site for weeks and even months." By continuing to classify the Ground Zero operation as an emergency rescue effort, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani kept operational control in his hands, so that the city was able to ignore federal and state laws regulating health and safety procedures.   

With Giuliani receiving constant media accolades for his "management" of the crisis, federal and state officials were unable or unwilling to confront the mayor on the city’s lack of compliance with safety laws. Similarly, they neglected to confront Giuliani’s failure to properly monitor indoor air quality in the rest of Lower Manhattan. Remarkably, the area’s councilwoman, denied permission by City Hall to conduct independent environmental testing in a few buildings, had to sneak a team of scientists past police barricades. They found several instances of extremely high asbestos contamination.

No matter. With the creation of the myth of Giuliani as a great leader, he was named Time magazine "Person of the Year," made an honorary knight by the Queen of England, even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. His presidential aspirations received an enormous boost.

Even before the IG’s report Dr. Stephen Levin, medical director of the Mount Sinai Center for Occupational and Environmental Health in New York, had responded skeptically to a National Public Radio reporter’s statement about EPA tests after the attack. The agency mentioned that dangerous pollutants in and around Ground Zero were either nondetectable or below established levels of concern. "Well, they were wrong," said Levin. As the IG confirmed, the tests didn’t measure for lead, pulverized concrete, or many other toxic materials that were released.

When the EPA did give reasonable warnings the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) compelled changes that endangered public health. In one of its first post-attack press releases the EPA stated accurately, "Even at low levels the EPA consider asbestos hazardous in this situation." That was changed to read "Short term, low level exposure to asbestos of the type that might have been produced by the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings is unlikely to cause significant health effects." This is precisely the opposite of the original.

The person in charge of the CEQ was James Connaughton, an industry lawyer who previously represented some major corporate polluters. "You can definitely blame the president," concluded Gonzalez. "Connaughton and the people fro the Council on Environmental Quality refused requests from the EPA Inspector General to be interviewed on their role or on who gave them the order to do what they did."

Another example of White House interference was its insistence that instructions about having nearby residences cleaned by professional crews be removed from a release. (Cleaning up the deadly contamination left by the attack was a recurring matter of conflict.) Following months of public outcry after September 11, the EPA finally agreed to do a cleanup, but only of residential apartments and only when people requested it. The IG’s report deplored this approach maintaining that buildings have to be cleaned as systems. If there is central air conditioning, for example, and only some apartments are cleaned, the pollution can travel back into the cleaned apartments.

Furthermore, businesses that conducted their own tests found intense levels of dioxins, asbestos, and other dangerous pollutants. In response, the IG report recommended that some commercial buildings as well as residences had to be cleaned. But many cleaning workers, residents, and employees were already experiencing chronic health problems, joining those lauded as heroes after 9/11. Medical screenings revealed that about half of the police officers, firefighters, emts, and construction workers at Ground Zero have illnesses caused by their unnecessary exposure to toxic dust and fumes.

In response to the recommendations for thorough cleanup the EPA noted that this would cost a lot of money. That contrasted sharply with President Bush’s promise of ample assistance issued shortly after the attack. In fact, he told US Senator Charles Shumer that the city had a "blank check." But that was before huge tax cuts for the rich, and deceitful and expensive military adventures abroad, combined to plunge the economy into record deficits that will extend far into the future.  

Later reports by medical groups commissioned by NYCOSH that have been screening victims of the pollution, along with an in-depth investigation by the Sierra Club that picks up where the IG’s report left off, add to the catalog of health-threatening deceptions and outrageous failures to act. The Sierra Club report, for example, revealed the presence of some especially virulent pollutants, the EPA’s failure to acknowledge them, and its gross negligence in protecting people.

According to the Sierra Club report, the EPA website claimed that the agency found no polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) "in any air samples," although four independent tests found them at high levels. Even the EPA’s own research scientists reported in a scientific journal that they found PAHs at levels worthy of "the most serious kind of concern." (PAHs are cancer-causing chemicals that may also produce genetic effects.)

The Sierra Club report elaborates on how deceptions about the presence of toxic substances were made much more health threatening by the failure of federal agencies — the EPA and also FEMA of Katrina notoriety — to assure proper cleanup of residential buildings and workplaces. Officials of these agencies advised residents to clean up the contaminated dust themselves with wet rags, and even discouraged then from wearing safety masks. This brought residents into contact with a plethora of toxic substances including dioxins, PAHs, asbestos, and lead. The latter, present in much of the dust, is a special threat to young children in whom lead poisoning can cause permanent brain damage and a spectrum of other problems.

The cleanup of workplaces was bunged just as badly as the cleanup of homes. The FEMA-funded EPA indoor cleanup program completely excluded nonresidential buildings. Many employees did their best to clean their own work areas, although some reportedly were forbidden even to wear safety masks on the job.

In short, employees in inadequately cleaned workplaces face the same hazards as residents in inadequately cleaned homes. In both cases the witch’s brew of contaminants that may be left behind is an ongoing health hazard.

Betrayal of the original victims of the attack on the WTC was made more reprehensible by the many betrayals that followed. White House deceptions and the failure of city and state officials to protect the public added significantly to the death and disease that resulted. This amounts to a second, albeit homegrown, terrorist attack, one so criminal that Dr. Clarke’s reference to Watergate seems like a considerable understatement.