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January 6th, 2005

Toxic shocks: More deceptions about post-9/11 health threats are emerging

by Albert Huebner

Following the attack on the World Trade Center, there were abundant, but scattered, unofficial observations that the Environmental Protection Agency had misled New Yorkers about the risks to their health of pollution from collapse of the buildings.

Although it took a long time, the EPA’s inspector general eventually released a report that confirmed these deceptions. The most shocking revelation was that the agency suppressed warnings about deadly pollution at the direction of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Reflecting on the inspector general’s report, Joel Shufro of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health concluded that it “clearly places responsibility on the White House for the sickness of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of workers and lower Manhattan residents.”

But it doesn’t end there. New reports by medical groups commissioned by NYCOSH that have been screening victims of the pollution, along with an in-depth investigation by the Sierra Club that picks up where the IG’s report left off, add substantially to the catalog of health threatening deceptions and outrageous failures to act.

The Sierra Club report, for example, reveals the presence of some especially virulent pollutants, the EPA’s failure to acknowledge them, and its gross negligence in protecting people. The report also exposes the administration’s plans to turn some of its worst failures following 9/11 into standard operating procedures in future national emergencies.

According to the Sierra Club report, the EPA’s website claimed that the agency found no polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) “in any air samples,” although four independent tests found them at high levels. Even the EPA’s own research scientists reported in a scientific journal that they found PAHs at levels worthy of “the most serious kind of concern.”

PAHs are cancer-causing chemicals that also may produce genetic effects. One of the private tests found these highly toxic substances on firefighters’ boots in amounts 115 and 422 times higher than EPA’s health-based criteria for soil cleanup. A new study analyzing the small dust particles gathered in EPA air samples – the particles most likely to reside long-term in lungs – also reveals high concentrations of PAHs.

Much of the dust from the WTC collapse was as caustic as ammonia, and in some cases as caustic as drain cleaner. The Sierra Club report claims that the federal government knew this, but didn’t tell rescue workers or the public.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration refused to enforce worker safety standards at Ground Zero, incorrectly claiming that it had no authority in national emergencies. As a consequence, testified David Newman, no more than 60 percent of workers wore respirators, and sometimes the figure was as low as 20 percent. Newman, an industrial hygienist at NYCOSH, spoke at a special meeting of the New York City Council earlier this year.

John Graham, an emergency medical technician, told a Sierra Club investigator: “I was at all the safety meetings, but they never really told us what was going on. Now, I’m a walking pharmacy. I have a chest infection, ear, nose, and throat problems. … My tonsils look like strawberries – red and pitted. I guess drain cleaner would do that to you.”

More generally, Newman testified that three-quarters of those seen by the WTC Screening Program have at least one persistent pulmonary symptom, and almost 90 percent have at least one ear, nose, or throat symptom. The effects were not only physical. About half of the rescue and recovery workers screened were judged to have mental health problems, experience persistent and disabling distress, and need mental health services.

Deceptions about the presence of toxic substances were made much more health threatening by the failure of federal agencies to assure proper cleanup of residential buildings and workplaces.

Newman testified, “In the absence of guidelines, directions, oversight, or enforcement from government agencies, the response of employers and landlords ran the gamut from appropriate testing and cleanup, to neither.” As for residents, the EPA and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials advised them to clean up the contaminated dust themselves with wet rags, and even discouraged them from wearing safety masks. When the EPA finally launched a limited indoor cleanup program funded by FEMA, it continued to assure residents that such cleanup wasn’t really needed.

The efforts of residents to clean the pollutants themselves brought them into contact with a plethora of toxic substances, including dioxin, PAHs, asbestos, and lead. The latter, present in much of the dust, is a special threat to young children in whom lead poisoning can cause permanent brain damage and a spectrum of other problems. The witch’s brew of dust left behind by inadequate cleaning remains an ongoing health hazard.

Pres. Bush wanted to get thousands of workers back to their jobs near Ground Zero quickly, partly to show the world that the United States wouldn’t be intimidated by terrorism, and partly to minimize damage to investors and the economy. But the cleanup of workplaces was bungled just as badly as the cleanup of homes. The FEMA-funded EPA indoor cleanup program completely excluded nonresidential buildings. Many employees did their best to clean their own work areas, although some reportedly were forbidden even to wear safety masks on the job. In short, employees in inadequately cleaned workplaces face the same hazards as residents in inadequately cleaned homes.

In formulating plans for future emergencies, the Bush administration could have been expected to look at mistakes made in lower Manhattan and to correct them. Instead, it turned its worst failures into standard operating procedures for national emergencies.

The failure of OSHA to enforce safety standards at Ground Zero put thousands of workers at extreme risk. Under OSHA’s new National Emergency Management Plan, the agency will not enforce safety rules but rather provide only technical assistance. The result will be, as after 9/11, political leaders unctuously praising the heroism of rescue workers while paving the way for their sickness and death.

Similarly, emergency planning at the Department of Homeland Security seems committed to taking the worst from the past. According to the Sierra Club report, the department’s planning document “solidifies the administration’s insistence on centralized political control of all hazard communications during an emergency – without providing strong policies to protect the public against false assurances.” This guarantees that a new round of life-threatening deceptions will accompany any new emergency.

Albert Huebner teaches at California State University, Northridge.

This article originally appeared in, and is reprinted with permission from the Vermont Guardian

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