On the clear, sunny morning of September 11, 2001 two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City. Within hours both towers came crashing down; colossal waves of dust and debris turned the sky to night and hurtled through the streets with such force that even the inside surfaces of sealed buildings were covered with layers of powdery substance.  Rescue workers, those who had escaped from the towers and people on the streets fled for whatever shelter they could find to escape from the onslaught. And when the dust cleared up a bit, some rushed right back to continue to search for survivors.

In all, about 40,000 people from various areas of the country, but mostly New Yorkers, worked search and rescue operations at Ground Zero, hauled debris from the buildings, and did cleanup and recovery work. Many more returned to live and work in the general area.

On September 18, 2001 Christie Todd Whitman, EPA Administrator, announced that:

results from the Agency’s air and drinking water monitoring near the World Trade Center and Pentagon disaster sites indicate that these vital resources are safe.

People were a tad skeptical, but anxious to believe, as well as to do anything they could to help out in the first weeks after the tragedy.  To further ease their minds, on October 3, 2001 OSHA and the EPA issued a joint press release saying, among other things:

OSHA Administrator John Henshaw confirmed that workers on the site should take appropriate steps to protect themselves, but there is no threat to public health. “[…] “It is important for workers involved in the recovery and clean-up to wear protective equipment as potential hazards and conditions are constantly changing at the site; however, our samples indicate there is no evidence of significant levels of airborne asbestos or other contaminants beyond the disaster site itself.”

I wish I could say that they were just doing a heckuva job… but in reality they were just flat out lying.

Or, as Donald Faeth, an emergency medical technician, put it:  “I think that there are several people who died that day and didn’t realize that they died that day. “

[read on…]
On November 4, 2001 CNN reported that:

Officials downplay risks of pollution near Ground Zero

NEW YORK (CNN) — Asbestos, fiberglass, benzene, dioxin, freon. All these pollutants and toxins were released into the atmosphere when the World Trade Center towers imploded and their remains burned.

After New Yorkers absorbed the shock of the tragedy, they started worrying about the long-term health effects, especially those who live near Ground Zero.

Government authorities responsible for monitoring air, water and soil say pollutant levels in the area still climb to hazardous levels some days. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration calls it “the most dangerous work site in America.”

But beyond Ground Zero, they say the worst days are probably over.

“The further you get from the site, the data does not demonstrate significant risks to people,” said William J. Muszynski, acting regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

[…]
But environmental watchdogs said they aren’t so sure.

“It’s not safe, and what’s proof of this is that medical clinics have diagnosed people with occupational asthma already and other respiratory problems, people that not only work down there but live down there,” said Joel Kupferman, executive director of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project.

Kupferman filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get data about the EPA’s monitoring of pollutants, data that the EPA said he takes out of context.

Apparently Kupferman did not see a rosy future after viewing what EPA documents he was able to obtain, regardless of context.

He wasn’t the only one:  

SACRAMENTO, California (AP) — Ground Zero tests by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the days immediately after the World Trade Center collapse did not support the agency’s own statements the air around the site was safe to breathe, a newspaper reported.

A report by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General said the agency reached its conclusion on the safety of the air using a cancer risk level 100 times greater than what it normally considers acceptable for public exposure to toxic contaminants.

The status report, obtained by The Sacramento Bee, supports the views of some doctors and public health advocates who evaluated thousands of firefighters, volunteers, demolition workers and laborers working on the site.

“To say that it’s safe, which suggests no risk, we just knew that was wrong,” said Jonathan Bennett, a spokesman for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health.

January 17, 2006 – 9/11 workers die after respiratory illnesses

NEW YORK (AP) — James Zadroga spent 16 hours a day toiling in the World Trade Center ruins for a month, breathing in debris-choked air. Timothy Keller said he coughed up bits of gravel from his lungs after the towers fell on September 11, 2001. Felix Hernandez spent days at the site helping to search for victims.

All three men died in the past seven months of what their families and colleagues say were persistent respiratory illnesses directly caused by their work at Ground Zero.

While thousands of people who either worked at or lived near the site have reported ailments such as “trade center cough” since the terrorist attacks, some say that only now are the consequences of working at the site becoming heartbreakingly clear.

“I’m very fearful,” said Donald Faeth, an emergency medical technician and officer in a union with two of the ground zero workers who died last year. “I think that there are several people who died that day and didn’t realize that they died that day.”

[…]
The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which is tracking the health of 71,000 people exposed to September 11 dust and debris, said last week that it is too soon to say whether any deaths or illnesses among its enrolled members are linked to trade center exposure.

Both Keller and Hernandez, each with a decade on the job, were nonsmokers and had no previous health problems before September 11, Faeth said.

Zadroga, a 34-year-old New York detective, logged 470 hours at the site in 2001, including September 11, and died January 5. Family members and co-workers said he had contracted black lung disease and had high levels of mercury in his brain. Autopsy results have not been released. (Full story)

David Worby, an attorney representing more than 5,000 plaintiffs suing those who supervised the cleanup over their illnesses, said 21 of his clients have died of September 11-related diseases since mid-2004. He said he was not authorized to release their names, but represented people who toiled at ground zero, at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island where trade center debris was moved, and at the city morgue.

Armed with the truth of just what a mishmash of toxicity they were surrounded by, would some have done the exact same thing anyway? I think so – there was still the hope of saving people, and still the lingering shock of the attack in the first place. Maybe there would have been more insistence on actual protective gear, however, instead of little face masks that work great when you are sanding wood, but not so much when breathing in lethal concoctions of chemicals and debris.

Sadly, the courage of those who rushed back into the billowing clouds of smoke, who conquered their fears in order to return to work in small shops and high rise buildings, who sent their children back into the schools, and who shopped, as urged – was not matched by a like courage, and honesty, from the Bush administration and the EPA.

Update [2006-2-3 19:13:54 by Nanette]: – Arcturus, in comments points to this story

U.S. District Judge Deborah A. Batts refused to grant Whitman immunity against a class-action lawsuit brought in 2004 by residents, students and workers in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn who said they were exposed to hazardous materials from the destruction of the World Trade Center.

Actions actually may have consequences, this time. One can hope, anyway.

crossposted at Human Beams – Politics

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