Asbestos Use in the Construction of the World Trade Center 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



It is with disbelief and growing horror that we watched the events which took place in Manhattan and Washington last week. Words are meaningless in the face of wanton terror and the loss of so many innocent lives. Yet, words are all we have to express our loss and solidarity with those people so suddenly and totally bereaved. Our hearts go out to all of those affected by these atrocious and barbarous acts.

Asbestos at the WTC

Many people enquired about the presence of asbestos at the World Trade Center (WTC) last week. At that time I had no information about this subject. In awe of the superhuman efforts being made to locate survivors, I felt it inappropriate to highlight these questions. Since then, information has been forthcoming about the use of asbestos on the twin towers. One contact informed me that prior to the complex being built, the New York Port Authority had planned to use 5000 tons of asbestos-containing sprayed fireproofing on floors 1-40 of the buildings. Above the fortieth floor, non-asbestos alternatives were to be used. This is confirmed by an article which appeared in the New York Times on September 18, 2001: "Anticipating a ban (on the use of asbestos in construction in NY), the builders stopped using the materials by the time they reached the 40th floor of the north tower, the first one to go up…" According to a spokesman for the Port Authority "more than half of the original, asbestos-containing material was later replaced."

An extremely useful factsheet (available at: ) produced by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health Inc. states: "Asbestos was a major material used in the construction of the World Trade Center. That asbestos is a constituent of the dust and debris." Practical advice is given for the protection of emergency workers at or near ground zero which includes "protective clothing should be worn so you can change out of your work clothes before returning home. Work clothes should be bagged at work and washed separately from personal laundry to prevent contamination."


In recent days, allegations have been made that the lack of asbestos in the twin towers contributed to the rapid collapse of the buildings. The New York Times article referred to in the second paragraph: Did the Ban on Asbestos Lead to Loss of Life examined claims that the non-asbestos containing fireproofing materials used during the construction of the WTC performed less effectively than similar asbestos products thereby shortening the time available for occupants to escape. Most of the experts consulted were unanimous: "no standard treatment of the steel, asbestos or otherwise, could have averted the collapse of the towers in the extraordinarily hot and violent blaze." The need for detailed research on building designs and materials was endorsed by many including Dr Yogesh Jaluria, an engineering expert from Rutgers University, who said: "tests for very violent and very large-scale fires have not been done." The sober tone and balanced approach of the New York Times article contrasts with a one-sided and spurious article which appeared on the website. Steven Malloy, the author of Asbestos Could Have Saved WTC Lives says Dr Irving Selikoff was "wrong to press the panic button about any use of or exposure to asbestos. For example no adverse health effect has ever been attributed to Levine’s technique of spraying wet asbestos…"

Preliminary enquiries reveal that the Levine technique, as developed by the US company Asbestospray Corporation, was based on a ceramic-fibre spray which did not contain asbestos. In the UK, the sprayed asbestos fireproofing process pioneered by Turner & Newall Ltd was a market leader: Sprayed Limpet was sold worldwide from the 1930s-mid 1970s. According to Dr. Geoffrey Tweedale: "Limpet was a mixture of asbestos and cement… At the end of the hose was a gun with a water spray, which ensured that Limpet would stick to its target." Large numbers of sprayers and others who worked in the vicinity of sprayers applying Limpet have died from asbestos-related diseases in the UK and abroad.

It is bizarre that an article in The (London) Times on September 18, 2001 quoted Malloy’s assertion that: "Asbestos is the best insulator we know of and not to use it because of hysterical public health reasons is absurd." The national bans adopted by governments in more than thirty countries were not knee-jerk reactions to mass hysteria but pragmatic decisions intended to reduce the incidence of asbestos-related deaths and disability. The consultation in the European Union (EU) about the proposed asbestos ban was long-ranging and thorough. The performance of non-asbestos alternatives was studied and it was concluded that effective alternatives were available. A European amendment adopted in July, 1999 imposes a 2005 deadline on the use of asbestos in all Member States. In the meantime, 13 out of the 15 EU states have adopted national bans or published their intentions to do so

In light of the devastation and horror of the tragedies which took place in NY and Washington, there will be many questions raised about the construction of the twin towers and the performance of the fireproofing materials used. It is a time to reflect and review; to identify ways in which we can protect our citizens and the infrastructure of our countries. This must be done with open minds and all the technological and scientific innovation we can muster. Do not let us get misdirected by a smokescreen of blame and misunderstanding.


September 19, 2001



       Home   |    Site Info   |    Site Map   |    About   |    Top↑