In a series of public statements issued after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assured the people of New York that the air around ground zero was safe to breathe. Unfortunately, the agency lacked authoritative information on which to base these claims, and internal agency data conflicting with this reassuring public posture were ignored. The EPA's press releases and public statements after 9/11 were vetted by then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, suggesting that the White House placed politics over science when communicating about ground zero's air quality. Tragically, the impact of this public deception continues to be felt by thousands of rescue workers now plagued by chronic and crippling lung ailments.
The EPA wasted little time in assuring New York residents and rescue workers that the area surrounding ground zero was safe. On September 13, 2001, just two days after the attacks, the agency issued a press release in which it explained "sampling of bulk materials and dust found generally low levels of asbestos. The levels of lead, asbestos and volatile organic compounds in air samples taken Tuesday in Brooklyn, downwind from the World Trade Center site, were not detectable or not of concern."¹ A September 18, 2001 press release was even more confident, quoting then-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, DC that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink."²
The EPA's proclamation of safe air was premature and, as it turned out, wrong. The collapse of the World Trade Center released nearly 2,000 tons of asbestos³ and hundreds of thousands of tons of concrete in the form of dust. A 2003 report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the EPA later charged that the EPA lacked the information needed to determine the air quality surrounding Ground Zero in the days following the September 11 attacks.4
The EPA was not given full control over its press releases in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Administrator Whitman issued a memo on September 12 announcing that "all statements to the media should be cleared through the NSC [National Security Council] before they are released,"5 and the New York Post reported that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was "the final decision maker" regarding the release of information by the EPA.6 In addition the OIG report details how the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) pressed the EPA to "add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones" from agency press releases.7 For example, information discussing the potential health risk for "sensitive populations" from exposure to particulate matter was discouraged from inclusion in a press release by a CEQ official, and language discussing detected levels of asbestos was softened.8 The involvement of NSC and CEQ officials raises questions as to whether public health concerns were trumped by political and security priorities.
Other news reports suggest that the EPA was not fully forthcoming about the air quality at ground zero. EPA scientist Cate Jenkins argues that the agency plainly lied in its public declarations. Jenkins told CBS News in September 2006 that the EPA knew "this dust was highly caustic, in some cases as caustic and alkaline as Drano."9 In September 2006, CNN reported that an October 5, 2001 letter from the EPA to the New York City Health Department warned of threats to worker safety from exposure to hazardous materials.10 Yet this knowledge failed to affect the EPA's unworried public statements.
The EPA's September 18, 2001 news release stated that "EPA's primary concern is to ensure that rescue workers and the public are not being exposed to elevated levels of potentially hazardous contaminants in the dust and debris."11 Yet despite this, a 2006 study by Mount Sinai Hospital in New York found that "seven out of ten World Trade Center rescue and wreckage workers had new or worsened lung problems after the attacks."12 The New York City Department of Health has a database of 71,000 people exposed to dust and debris at Ground Zero—a database created in response to hundreds of people's complaints of breathing and lung problems. The health of these individuals may have been saved if not for the government's willingness to place politics above sound science in the aftermath of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.
1. Environmental Protection Agency, “EPA Initiates Emergency Response Activities, Reassures Public About Environmental Hazards,” press release, September 13, 2001, accessed December 4, 2006, <http://www.epa.gov/wtc/stories/headline_091301.htm>.
2. Environmental Protection Agency, “Whitman Details Ongoing Agency Efforts to Monitor Disaster Sites, Contribute to Cleanup Efforts,” press release, September, 18 2001, accessed 5 October 2006, <http://www.epa.gov/wtc/stories/headline_091801.html>.
3. Klitzman, S., et al. 2003. Implications of the World Trade Center Attack for the Public Health and Health Care Infrastructures. American Journal of Public Health 93: 400, <http://www.ajph.org/cgi/content/abstract/93/3/400>.
4.Environmental Protection Agency, “EPA’s Response to the World Trade Center Collapse: Challenges, Successes, and Areas for Improvement,” Office of the Inspector General (OIG), August 21, 2003, <http://www.epa.gov/oig/reports/2003/WTC_report_20030821.pdf>.
5. OIG, 25.
6. Susan Edelman, Heather Gilmore and Brad Hamilton, “Rice OK’d Claim of ‘Safe Air’ After 9/11,” New York Post, 25 September 2006, accessed 5 October 2006, <http://www.nycpba.org/wtc/media/nyp060924-epa.html>.
7. OIG, 5.
8. OIG, 25-26.
9. “Insider: EPA Lied About WTC Air,” CBS News, 8 September 2006, accessed 5 October 2006, <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/09/08/earlyshow/main1985804.shtml>.
10. “Memos: NYC Told Ground Zero Air Was Unsafe,” CNN, 7 September 2006, accessed 5 October 2006, <http://www.cnn.com/2006/US/09/07/nyc.air/index.html?section=cnn_health>.
11. EPA, September 18, 2001.
12. Herbert, H., et al. 2006. The World Trade Center Disaster and the Health of Workers: Five-Year Assessment of a Unique Medical Screening Program. Environmental Health Perspectives 114: 1853, <http://www.ehponline.org/members/2006/9592/9592.html>.