How much did federal officials know about air quality at Ground Zero?

As Jori Lewis notes in the case study about World Trade Center recovery workers' health and safety, those who showed up at Ground Zero on the days and weeks after 9/11 got some misleading information about the risks they faced. Most notably, the EPA issued reassuring statements about the air quality - when, according to a 2003 EPA Inspector General report, the agency had insufficient data and analyses to support calling the air there safe. More accurate information might have increased the use of respirators and delayed people's return to homes and offices in the vicinity of Ground Zero. Now, new documents obtained by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and analyzed by ProPublica, demonstrate the back-and-forth between federal officials that turned incomplete and alarming information into misleading reassurances.

Several years ago, NYCOSH workplace safety expert David Newman wanted to know more about how the involved various agencies (including multiple federal, state, and city entities) made decisions regarding worker safety, so he started filing Freedom of Information Act requests. ProPublica analyzed the many documents NYCOSH collected, and has posted them on online for easy access by the public. A ProPublica article by Anthony DePalma, author of "City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance and 9/11," describes the findings:

In one instance, a warning that people should not report to work on a busy thoroughfare in the financial district--Water Street--was rewritten and workers instead were urged to return to their offices as soon as the financial district opened on Sept. 17. In another, federal officials declared that testing showed the area was safe when sampling of the air and dust--which ultimately found very high levels of toxic chemicals--had barely begun.

... Early on Sept. 13, a day and a half after the World Trade Center towers collapsed, [Council on Environmental Quality Associate Director of Communications Samuel] Thernstrom called OSHA's New York office to say [EPA Administrator Christine Todd] Whitman was on her way to the city to talk to reporters about the agency's air testing "since all monitoring reports have been so positive thus far," according to an OSHA email. But according to its own records, the EPA had only tested a handful of asbestos samples before Sept. 14 and didn't get the results of tests for other contaminants until Sept. 23.

A joint press release put out by the EPA and OSHA said dust samples taken from cars and buildings on Sept. 13 had asbestos levels "slightly above" the 1 percent level at which federal regulations apply. The new documents, however, specify that the samples contained 2.1 to 3.3 percent asbestos--or 200 percent to 300 percent higher than the trigger standard.

The Council on Environmental Quality is a branch of the Executive Office of the President, and is perhaps best known for editing scientific reports to downplay the role of greenhouse-gas emissions in climate change during the Bush Administration. It played a significant role in the content of the communications from the executive branch in the days and weeks after September 11, 2001, DePalma reports:

Within days of the twin towers' collapse, when the air was heaviest with asbestos and dioxin, a warning that office workers in New York's Financial District might be at risk if they returned to their workplaces was removed from public statements at the request of the Council on Environmental Quality.

... The original draft of the release that was going to be issued by the EPA and OSHA said "higher levels of asbestos" had been found in seven samples taken by OSHA on Water Street in the Financial District. The Inspector General's office examined inter-agency emails and found that after the White House reviewed the draft and suggested revisions, the information about Water Street was removed, as was this warning to office workers: "The concern raised by these samples would be for workers at the cleanup site and for those workers who might be returning to their offices on or near Water Street."

The newly released documents show that, in place of the caution about Water Street, office workers were urged to return to work on Monday, Sept. 17. "Our tests show it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York's financial district," OSHA's administrator says in the final version of the release.

There's much more in the full article -- read it here.

NYCOSH's Newman explains what the official response was, compared to what it should have been: "These documents confirm that what happened at the World Trade Center is that we proceeded with a minimalist approach in terms of caution and never really scaled it up as it became necessary, rather than assuming the worst-case scenario and scaling it back as appropriate."

I like to think that the people who decided to withhold or invent information about air quality around the World Trade Center site didn't think their decisions would cost lives. Now we know that hundreds of people have been sickened, and in some cases killed, by respiratory and other illnesses linked to exposures in the area. I hope during the next disaster of this scale (which may be either natural or human-caused), officials remember that it's better to be honest than to offer false assurances of safety.

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Please watch the attached youtube clip, from last year, discussing EPA's emergency response to the BP Gulf Oil Spill and EPA's 9/11 emergency response:

Then see if you believe that the EPA Regulators have "Learned From 9/11 Blunders"

(Hint: Follow the $ - In the 9/11 Case, the Insurance Companies, like Citigroup-Travelers, AIG, etc. saved billions of $ from the "blunders"; In the BP Oil Spill Case, Larry Fink's Blackstone, the largest shareholder of BP, saved billions of $ from the "blunders." Hmmmmm)

Published: September 9, 2011
EPA Regulators Say They've Learned From 9/11 Blunders…

I think OSHA was under a lot of pressure to "back off" at the WTC site, so as not to hinder rescue efforts. If they are to be responsible for safety at such a site, Congresss would have to revise the OSH Act, becuase OSHA has no jurisdiction over public employees (like fire and police). What a mess!

OSHA Expert,
It was indeed a mess. There are a couple of problems with the argument that OSHA would have hindered rescue efforts. First, after a week had passed, there was very little chance that any survivors would be found. The last person found alive at the site was rescued on September 12. Second, rescue-to-recovery work is a profession with a strong safety component. If one looks at training programs and training exercises for search-and-rescue, mine rescue, beach patrols, etc. the safety of the rescue-to-recovery teams is a core principle. It's true that federal OSHA did not/does not have jurisdiction over state/local employees in NY (because the State has an approved OSHA plan to have that responsibility itself) but many of the recovery workers were not state or local employees.

By Celeste Monforton (not verified) on 13 Sep 2011 #permalink

Not to excuse any blunders and coverups by the EPA or other agencies, but the distinction needs to be made between announcements about air quality AT Ground Zero and air quality in lower Manhattan NEAR Ground Zero. The EPA, OSHA, and the NYC and NYS DEP all quickly determined that the air at Ground Zero was not safe to breathe without the use of proper air filtration respirators. However, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks respirators were not available for most workers, nor was there sufficient training in the fitting and use of the respirators that were distributed. (Whether most workers would have used respirators - and used them properly - had they been available in the first few days, is unknown).

It was decided early on that New York City would be responsible for enforcing the respirator use rules. The city then decided to allow the four main cleanup contractors to supervise this enforcement for their workers. The result was enforcement that ranged from strict (some workers were fired for not wearing respirators) to nonexistent (in most photos of the cleanup site, most workers aren't wearing respirators). Once respirators were available for everyone, rarely were more than half of the workers on the pile using them. Compare that to the Pentagon attack scene, where if you didn't wear a respirator, you didn't work, period.

From the numerous accounts and studies I've read, and from speaking with Ground Zero workers, the lack of use of available respirators was primarily due to these factors, in order from most important to least:

1) Lax enforcement of existing rules.

2) A culture of disregard for personal danger, combined with a compulsion to work as much as possible on the pile, that prevailed among many workers. This was reinforced by FDNY commanders and contractor supervisors at the site who disregarded the rules, and by visiting celebrities and politicians, such as Mayor Giuliani, who appeared at Ground Zero for photo opportunities without respiratory protection.

3) Equipment that sometimes didn't fit well, was always uncomfortable to use, and that made verbal communication at the noisy site impossible except at very close range.

4) Spotty training in the fitting and proper use of respirators.

By Mark Roberts (not verified) on 13 Sep 2011 #permalink

It's not just OSHA, either. It's the people who lived in Battery Park City and were told it was safe to go home, and the ones downwind in Brooklyn who were assured that the smoke and particles from the burning ruins were harmless.

Many workers and responders were told NOT to wear respirators, so as to not scare the public and keep the cover-up going.
EPA Administrator Whitman starting on Sept. 13, 2001 and continuing thru Oct. 31, 2001 and beyond continued to tell the news media, the responders, and the public that the air was safe, and experts and reporters saying anything different were fear mongering.
Mayor Giuliani was also doing the same. CBS News in their 10 year anniversary documentary aired on September 11, 2011 played a couple of those clips of Giuliani and Whitman.
8 billion lbs. of carcinogenic asbestos was released, and in the air for months. Yet even today, the Federal HHS says that there is NO evidence that the cancers of the heroic workers and responders could have been caused by the pollution.

I wanted to ask that you include our wtc safety assessment, which gathered initial documentation on worker safety and health risks and laid the basis for the subsequent training program and ongoing worker surveillance by niehs and others. See reference url above for the historical reference. thank you.

I goofed before. Sorry. There was only 880 million lbs of asbestos released into the air at Ground Zero.

Hugh, that's silly. 880 million lbs is more than the weight of the WTC buildings.

By Mark Roberts (not verified) on 16 Sep 2011 #permalink

Common sense tells us that the air at the site and down wind was toxic and dangerous, given the materials involved in the disaster. It was important that the financial markets reopened to avert collateral economic damage. It appears that the dangers were downplayed for the common good.