9/11 Fall Out: Homegrown Terrorism (12/03)

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-damaging substances while performing these heroic deeds. Unfortunately, while many bureaucrats were unctuously praising these heroes, irresponsible and deceptive post-attack actions by some officials paved the way for many more illnesses and deaths among workers and residents in lower Manhattan. "What happened here is at the level of Watergate," charges Dr. Marjorie Clarke, scientist-in-residence at Lehman College in New York and an expert on toxic emissions.

Journalist Juan Gonzalez’s energetic investigation of this irresponsibility and deceit revealed outrageous disregard for the health and welfare of rescue workers, residents, and others, raising fears that those people would pay a terrible price. Accumulating evidence shows that the price has already been tragically high, and will likely continue to rise far into the future. Although it took a long time, a recent report by the Inspector General (IG) of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  confirms abundant, but scattered unofficial observations that the EPA often misled New Yorkers about the risks that pollution from the collapse of World Trade Center buildings posed to their health. But the most shocking revelation is 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 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."

Minimizing Risks

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. And in his book Fallout, Gonzalez reports 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 those levels one mile north of the trade center, at a station that wasn’t even in the path of the prevailing winds. These contradictions prompted the journalist to start digging.

Gonzalez describes the thousands of rescue workers as abandoned heroes, praised yet treated as so much expendable fodder. He notes that "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," thus abandoning the workers to a chemical stew of toxic substances. By continuing to classify the Ground Zero operation as an emergency rescue effort, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani kept operational control in his hands. Thus, 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 bureaucrats were unable, or unwilling, to confront the mayor on the city’s lack of compliance with safety laws at Ground Zero. 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.    

According to Rudy Sanfilippo, a leader of the Uniformed Firefighters Association who spent considerable time at Ground Zero, operations there were "out of control" for weeks. Sanfilippo adds that Fire Commissioner Thomas von Eisen "rode off into the sunset with Giuliani, holding press conferences every day, rising to fame on our backs." Several police officers and firefighters testified at public hearings that they weren’t given proper respirators until long after the attacks. The deputy chief medical officer of the New York City Fire Department confirmed that some equipment "of questionable value" had been issued to firefighters, and that a number of them wore no respiratory protection.

By early March, 200 local firefighters were on medical leave, nearly 700 had reported respiratory problems from WTC duty, and the emerging health crisis had spread beyond the city. Of 74 emergency responders from Ohio who volunteered to work at Ground Zero, 34 had become ill by February, 2002, and a hundred of the 395 responders from California had filed workers compensation claims due to related illnesses.

Less than a week after the WTC collapse, tens of thousands of workers and residents returned to their jobs and homes near Ground Zero, after receiving the go-ahead from officials. Officially, President Bush, Mayor Giuliani, and other leaders wanted to show the world that the US wouldn’t be intimidated by terrorism. But there was another pressing need: The longer the nation’s chief financial markets remained closed, the greater the prospect of long-lasting damage to investors and the US economy. Unfortunately, cleanup of contamination inside the hundreds of high-rise office and residential buildings was either neglected entirely, or was conducted in a superficial manner that violated federal law.

White House Cover-up

Even before the IG’s report appeared, Dr. Stephen Levin, medical director of the Mount Sinai Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine in New York, had responded skeptically to a National Public Radio reporter’s statement about EPA tests a week after the attack. The agency maintained 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 EPA considers 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." Precisely the opposite of the original!

Investigating who had authorized the changes, Gonzalez found that the person in charge of the CEQ, and presumably responsible, 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 from 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 intervention, say EPA officials, was its insistence that instructions about having nearby residences cleaned by professional crews be removed from a release. It gets worse. 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 deplores this approach, because 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 after the attack found excessive levels of dioxins, asbestos, and other dangerous pollutants. In response, the IG report recommends that some commercial buildings, as well as residences, have to be cleaned. But more than two years have elapsed, and many cleaning workers, residents, and employees are already experiencing chronic health problems. They join those lauded as heroes after 9/11. Medical screenings have revealed that about half of the police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and construction workers at Ground Zero still have illnesses caused by their unnecessary exposure to toxic dust and fumes.

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

Betrayal of the original victims was made more reprehensible by many acts that

followed. Both White House deceptions and the failure of city and state officials to protect the public added significantly to the death and disease. This amounts to a second, albeit homegrown, terrorist attack, one so criminal that Dr. Clarke’s reference to Watergate seems like a considerable understatement.