Asbestos Fallout from September 11
For hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers the nightmare persists. Long after newspaper editors have grown weary of stories about September 11, the anxiety of lower Manhattan’s residents continues to grow, fuelled by scientific disputes and conflicting government advice. Feelings of abandonment are common, accusations of cover-ups commonplace. Allegations that the economic and political necessity of a return to normalcy took priority over public health seem credible in light of information now becoming public. Respected scientists1, hired by unions, tenant associations and New York politicians, have reported dangerous levels of asbestos contamination in apartments and offices near ground zero. Dr. Cate Jenkins, an environmental scientist who has worked for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for 22 years, is worried: "If people continue living and working in places that still have dust in the carpets, furniture, drapes and heating and cooling system, these fibers will continue to be resuspended… The elevated risk could be from around one-in-a-thousand extra cancers to maybe as high as one in 10."
Jenkins poured scorn on the "many different, conflicting, contradictory official positions taken by the EPA" in a memorandum she issued on December 3, 2001. The senior EPA scientist documented numerous instances where public statements by Agency officials contradicted EPA test results, asbestos policy, recommendations and first-hand experience. Some of the absurdities Jenkins highlighted were:
Reassurances by Christine Todd Whitman, the EPA Administrator, and others that there is "no evidence of any significant public health hazard to residents, visitors or workers beyond the immediate World Trade Centre area2."
This statement was made in the same press release which announced that over 30% of the bulk dust and debris samples taken by the Agency five to seven blocks from ground zero contained more than 1% asbestos3. Unbelievably, airborne asbestos measurements were only taken outdoors by the EPA. Dr. Jenkins says: "EPA’s outdoor air readings are irrelevant in determining whether there are any hazards inside during a cleanup or other normal activities." According to toxicologist Hugh Granger of HP Environmental: "To ignore testing the indoor environment for asbestos defies logic… Outside, the normal air movement dilutes and dissipates asbestos concentration. Inside, the fibers are trapped by four walls. They constantly get resuspended just by occupants walking on carpets, closing the drapes or having the air conditioner or heat go on or off."
Reassurances by Ms. Whitman and Ms. Callaghan, of EPA’s Region 2, that short-term high level exposures do not create a health hazard.
Dr. Jenkins points out: "We do not know what the health effects are for inhaling the type of asbestos found from the WTC at high concentrations for a short period of time… EPA has determined that even high asbestos exposures of relatively short duration are harmful through its regulatory and advisory system."
Claims that the EPA does not have authority over private home asbestos decontamination.
In Libby, Montana the EPA is commencing decontamination of asbestos-contaminated areas under the Superfund statute. Once the EPA has declared a public health emergency, it has the authority to clean up homes, businesses and schools at public expense.
Dr. Jenkins concludes that "The cleanup of all affected homes in lower Manhattan should be performed by EPA or other governmental bodies at public expense, utilizing the methods in the NESHAP4 or as proposed by certified asbestos abatement experts and approved by EPA regional NESHAP coordinators as meeting all CAA requirements."
By a strange synchronicity, much of the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite used on the World Trade Center came from Libby, a community haunted by seven decades of operations at W. R. Grace’s Zonolite mine. A local campaign to publicize the high incidence of asbestos-related disease and dangerous levels of environmental contamination in Libby finally attracted the attention of the federal government in 19995. On December 20, 2001, Montana Governor Judy Martz announced that she had decided to fast-track Libby’s cleanup using the state’s one and only "silver bullet" to bypass the usual delays in obtaining Superfund listing. The same day, an EPA assessment was published which focused on local and national issues arising from the production and use of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite. It concluded that asbestos contamination in Libby poses "an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health." Reacting to this report, Jenkins said: "If the risk to the people of Libby is high enough to warrant the imposition of a Superfund designation, why are government agencies just shrugging off the fact that many of the apartments and businesses in lower Manhattan have identical levels of asbestos or higher?" On January 11, 2002, the EPA ombudsman’s office announced an investigation into the allegations that the agency had "concealed evidence of contamination at the disaster site." Hugh Kaufman, the ombudsman’s chief investigator, said: "The evidence I have seen demonstrates that there is and was a substantial health risk that EPA had documented in its testing. There’s enough evidence to demonstrate that Mrs. Whitman’s statement to the brave rescue workers and the people who live there was false." Allegations that misleading and incorrect information was distributed by personnel from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the New York state and city health departments also require investigation. In addition, demands should be made that New York City Council confirms whether it has auctioned scrap metal from the WTC. Newspaper reports indicate that a 10,000 tonne consignment of this material arrived in Madras, India on January 17, 2002 for conversion into household items such as steel furniture and kitchenware. The Madras scrap metal dealer paid $US120 per tonne to a Dubai-based trader. It’s believed that two other local businessmen have also purchased WTC scrap; sales to firms in South Korea, China and Malaysia have also been reported. There are no indications that this material was decontaminated before it left the United States.
January 21, 2002
1Eric Chatfield and John Kominsky used electron microscope technology and modern fiber counting protocols; the EPA's measurements were taken using twenty year old methods of collection and measurement.
31% is set as the action level under the Clean Air Act (CAA) in surface dusts, debris and other materials.
4NESHAP: National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants