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

By: Marie Willsey

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.