Was there a cover-up of the risk for respiratory illness at ground zero?

A New York firefighter walks away from ground zero shortly after the Twin Towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001.
A New York firefighter walks away from ground zero shortly after the Twin Towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001.
Anthony Correia/Getty Images

The events of Sept. 11, 2001 have had a long-lasting effect on Americans, who remember the day with sadness and horror. For some New Yorkers and others involved in the rescue and recovery efforts that day, the long-term health effects have been devastating.

An estimated 40,000 to 90,000 workers and volunteers were involved in some way in the rescue and recovery attempt and may have been affected by the dust. Respiratory illnesses have been especially prevalent.

Scientists have called the dust, smoke and ash unleashed by the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 the greatest acute environmental disaster in New York City history [source: New York Times]. Fires burned at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (537.8 degrees Celsius), creating a toxic cloud that covered lower Manhattan and spread to neighboring areas, as well as to the outer boroughs.

As the towers fell, they pulverized the cement, asbestos and other materials contained in the building, while the pressure of the collapsing floors fused materials in potentially dangerous combinations.

Questions have been raised about whether or not authorities, especially the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), could have increased public awareness about the hazards of the air quality at ground zero in the days and weeks following the attack. To learn more about the debate, read on.

EPA Issues Words of Comfort … and Caution

In the days immediately following the attacks, government officials rushed to provide information to the people of New York City, who were eager to return to their homes and businesses.

In a press release issued on Sept. 13, 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assured the people of New York that the air around ground zero was safe, explaining that "sampling of bulk materials and dust found generally low levels of asbestos. The levels of lead, asbestos and volatile organic compounds in an air sample taken Tuesday in Brooklyn, downwind from the World Trade Center site, were not debatable or not of concern" [source: EPA].

Then, a Sept. 18, 2001, press release from the EPA quoted EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, "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 air is safe to drink" [source: EPA].

In 2003, however, a report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) charged that the EPA lacked the information needed to determine the air quality surrounding ground zero in the days following 9/11. As it was later disclosed, Whitman had issued a memo to her department that day announcing that all statements to the media had to be cleared through the National Security Council (NSC) before they were released -- a wise precaution given the circumstances, but critics have questioned whether matters of security and politics were given priority over public health.

The OIG report explained how the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEG) pressed the EPA to "add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones" from agency press releases, such as one that deleted a warning to "sensitive populations" such as the elderly or those with asthma.

Another twist arose when an internal memo written by a New York City Health Department official, dated Oct. 6, 2001, was released, suggesting that the city Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) disagreed on the air quality following the attacks. An associate commissioner of the health department wrote that the mayor's office was under pressure from building owners and business owners to open more of the "red zone."

Meanwhile, the EPA had warned the city's health department that there were concerns about worker safety at the World Trade Center site. As an EPA official wrote to a New York official in October 2001, "In addition to standard construction/demolition site safety concerns, this site also poses threats to workers related to potential exposure to hazardous substances." These concerns were never voiced in public statements from the EPA.

The EPA Defends its Actions

Ground Zero on Oct. 21, 2001, one month after the 9/11 attacks.
Ground Zero on Oct. 21, 2001, one month after the 9/11 attacks.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A study released in 2006 by Mount Sinai Hospital in New York found that seven out of 10 ground zero rescue workers had new or worsened lung problems after the attacks [source: Klatell].

Dr. Jacqueline Moline, co-director of the program that released the study, said the potential problems from the air at ground zero could have been prevented. "I think a lot of the health effects could have been prevented if people were wearing appropriate respiratory protection," she said [source: CBS News].

Could these problems have been prevented? And who was responsible? Questions arose regarding the EPA's guidance and whether or not the federal government had done all it could do to protect workers and residents of Lower Manhattan.

In June 2007, a Congressional hearing was held on the government's environmental response to 9/11. Whitman defended her statements assuring the public that the air in Lower Manhattan was safe in the days following the attacks. "Every statement I made was based on what experts, who had a great deal of experience in these things, conveyed to me, " she said [source: DePalma].

The committee referenced the 2003 OIG report that concluded that Whitman didn't have enough scientific information to state that the air was "safe to breathe."

Another line of questioning involved whether or not communications were being heavily screened. Whitman said she was aware of only one instance in which important information was removed from a statement by the President's Council on Environmental Quality, which edited the statements in the aftermath of the attack. She had urged residents to have their apartments professionally cleaned; the statement was removed after the release was sent to the White House for review. Instead, the public was told to follow instructions from New York City officials.

Whitman denied claims that she had been pressured to declare the air safe so that the financial district could be reopened. She reported that there were discussions about evoking the federal Superfund law that would've given the EPA broad powers to control the ground zero site, but that concept was rejected in favor of collaboration with New York City officials.

In the same hearing, John Henshaw, a former assistant secretary of labor who led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2001, defended the EPA's decision not to enforce strict regulations on the use of respirators by ground zero workers. Instead, he said the agency partnered with the city and the construction companies working at the site to encourage them to comply voluntarily with the regulations [source: dePalma].

A Question of Trust?

The debate continued as New York leaders sought to obtain funding for the Mount Sinai Medical Center program and others that would provide aid to those with medical expenses.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) said in an interview that it was "understandable in the midst of a crisis the White House did not want the EPA to sound alarmist." But he also warned that "if the public loses faith that things are safe when the government says so, then we'll have done more damage than a pointed statement the week after 9/11 would have."

Acting EPA Administrator Marianne Horinko, who sat in on EPA meetings with the White House immediately following the attacks, said that the White House had played a coordinating role in assembling information from the various agencies and presenting a united front. She said members of the National Security Council played the key role, filtering incoming data on air and water at ground zero, since they were considered to be the experts, and the EPA focused on gathering data and making it public as quickly as possible.

"Under unbelievably trying conditions, EPA did the best that it could," she said [source: Common Dreams].

The question remains whether or not political and security priorities trumped concern for public health. The only thing we know for sure is that debate over the government's response to one of the most harrowing days in U.S. history is a heated one, and may remain so for years to come.

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Sources

  • DePalma, Anthony. "Illness Persisting in 9/11 Workers, Big Study Finds." The New York Times, September 6, 2006. (Accessed June 22, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/06/nyregion/06health.html?ref=healthandenvironmentalissues
  • DePalma, Anthony. "Ex-EPA Chief Defends Role in 9/11 Response." The New York Times, June 26, 2007. (Accessed June 22, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/26/nyregion/26whitman.html?scp=1&sq=Ex-EPA%20Chief%20defends%20roll%20in%209/11%20response&st=cse
  • Environmental Protection Agency. "EPA Response to September 11." (Accessed June 24, 2011) http://www.epa.gov/wtc/
  • Garret, Laurie. "EPA Misled Public on 9/11 Pollution." Newsday. August 23, 2003. (Accessed June 22, 2011) http://www.commondreams.org/cgi-bin/print.cgi?file=/headlines03/0823-03.htm.
  • Klatell, James. "Insider: EPA Lied About WTC Air." CBS News. September 10, 2009. (Accessed June 22, 2011) http://www.cbsnews.com/2102-500202_162-1985804.html?tag=contentMain;
  • The New York Times. "9/11 Health and Environmental Issues." Times Topics. (Accessed June 24, 2011) http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/s/sept_11_2001/health_and_environmental_issues/index.html?scp=1&sq=%22Illness%20persisting%20in%209/11%20Workers%22&st=cse
  • Union of Concerned Scientists. "World Trade Center Rescue Workers Believed EPA, Ended Up Sick." (Accessed June 24, 2011) http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/abuses_of_science/ground-zero-air-pollution.html