Toxic Lies at Ground Zero

Revolutionary Worker #1228, February 8, 2004, posted at

On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, the closest you get to "Ground Zero"--or what used to be the World Trade Center--is Chinatown about ten blocks away. Once there, standing with thousands of other stunned and horrified people, you look up at the thick black cloud spreading out from Church and Vesey Streets. It plumes into the sky and arcs toward Brooklyn, blotting out the sun. The cloud is what remains after the collapse of the twin skyscrapers that constituted the World Trade Center after hijacked planes slammed into them. It is a collapse that set loose a hornet's nest of toxins: glass fibers, concrete dust, fiberglass, asbestos, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead, benzene, and other substances. The fire and smoke will continue for months.

It is an environmental calamity that calls for unprecedented measures to minimize the health hazard to people. At this moment people need the truth. What they get instead, in the following weeks and months, are empty reassurances and outright deception by government authorities set on returning to "business as usual" in the nation's financial center --even as the government launches wars and enacts new fascistic laws in the name of "responding" to the 9/11 attacks and "protecting the homeland."

Reopening Wall Street as "Patriotic Duty"

The opening bell on Wall Street clanged triumphantly on September 17, a scant six days after the World Trade Center collapsed only a few blocks away.

Getting Wall Street (and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., which was also hit by a hijacked plane) up and running quickly was essential to the rulers of the U.S. From their perspective, what happened at the World Trade Center could not be allowed to spark a financial calamity on the mighty U.S. economy. Wall Street is a symbol of U.S. capitalism and the Pentagon is a symbol of the U.S. military. The U.S. ruling class could not allow these key symbols of their empire to remain incapacitated for long. Getting Wall Street back up on its feet was portrayed as a "patriotic" act.

The New York Times wrote on September 17, 2001, "Wall Street wants to go back to work. Capitalism has been very good to many people in the securities industry, and more than one trader views opening the markets as a patriotic duty, a sign that terrorists cannot cow the United States."

Preparing the ground for this bit of patriotic "can do" was John L. Henshaw, the Bush administration's assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA). The September 16, 2001 press release from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) quoted Henshaw saying, "Our tests show that it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York's financial district." This particular line had not been included in the original draft of the EPA press release. However, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ--a White House "information agency" on environmental matters) intervened to add the Henshaw quote to the EPA statement. This happened with a series of EPA press releases around that time. (The CEQ was the direct White House link to the EPA. CEQ's communication director at the time, Sam Tehrnftrom, is now with the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank.)

The reality, as Juan Gonzalez documents in his book Fallout,was that the WTC collapse had released large amounts of toxins into lower Manhattan. There was mercury from tens of thousands of shattered fluorescent lamps; PCBs and lead from pulverized computers; asbestos from the building materials; and benzene from the burning oil (including from the thousand gallons of diesel fuel that were stored in then-Mayor Giuliani's command and control bunker).

In February 2002, a report by the University of California at Davis noted that "air pollution levels in lower Manhattan [in October 2001] .had been worse than during the oil fires in Kuwait after the Gulf War." [Cited in Fallout .]

This should have been a time for telling people the truth about the dangers and for extreme caution-- not a time for covering up the truth and sending people back pell-mell into a disaster site. Robert Gulack is senior counsel for the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission, which is located in the asbestos- laden Woolworth Building near Ground Zero. Two years after 9/11, he told the press, "They rushed us back into contaminated playgrounds and schools and places of business. They took it upon themselves to decide what we would be told, and what might be too upsetting for us to know."

A Deliberate Lie

"I'm glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C. that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink."

Christine Whitman, EPA head, 9/16/01

"People are still being exposed right now. People are working and going to school in buildings contaminated by dust from the collapse. The EPA needs to come back and address this, They just want this to go away. They don't care what happens to people."

A woman living in lower Manhattan, Newsday , 9/15/03

On August 21, 2003, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the EPA released a report that confirmed what many people already strongly suspected--the EPA was not telling the truth in the wake of 9/11. In the tame words of the report, "When EPA made a September 18 announcement that the air was `safe' to breathe it did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement."

More precisely, the reality of the danger was deliberately hidden from people. A stark example is what the EPA said about asbestos. Asbestos is extremely dangerous. Exposure, even over a short period of time, can have dire consequences. Anywhere from 15 to 20 years down the road, asbestos exposure can cause lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma (a cancer of lung linings). When asbestos contamination is above the 1% level, professional abatement teams are supposed to be called in to remove it.

The original draft of a Sept. 13, 2001 EPA press release said, "Even at low levels, EPA considers asbestos hazardous in this situation..."

At the prompting of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, that original wording was edited to read, "Short-term, low-level exposure [to asbestos] of the type that might have been produced by the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings is unlikely to cause significant health effects."

Likewise on September 18, 2001, the EPA claimed, "Thus far, from 50 air samples taken, the vast majority of results are either non-detectable or below established levels of concern for asbestos, lead, and volatile organic compounds." The 2003 OIG report, however, emphasizes, "Over 25 percent of the bulk dust samples collected before September 18 showed the presence of asbestos above the 1 percent benchmark."

Orders to the EPA came not only from the CEQ but also from the National Security Council (NSC-- a White House group that includes top members of the Bush cabinet). The 2003 OIG report quotes an e- mail from EPA deputy administrator's office to senior EPA officials which said, "All statements to the media should be cleared through the NSC before they are released."

As the EPA issued false reassurances, the NYC Department of Health (which was responsible for monitoring and cleanup inside buildings and residences near the WTC site) played its part. It began a "How To" campaign on cleanup that began, "The best way to remove dust is to use a wet rag or wet mop..." This made it seem as if the problem was one that could be dealt with by simple and routine household cleaning.

And asbestos was not the only danger. The 2003 OIG report says that when the EPA declared (in its September 18, 2001 statement) that everything was okay, "It lacked monitoring data for PCBs, particulate matter, dioxin, and PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons--a carcinogen]."

Victims of the Coverup

"The air quality is safe and acceptable. I know there are people concerned and worried about it, but that's just the reality,"

Rudolph Giuliani, 9/28/01

"It gets so bad you can't even sleep. It's a burning smell and it stays in your apartment. I had two months of bronchitis. I was coughing so badly that all the muscles on my ribcage hurt. On one occasion I had to go to the emergency room, so my doctor suggested I get out of there."

Shirley Kwan, Chinatown resident and member of World Trade Center Emergency Environmental Group, quoted in Fallout

A recent study by the New York City fire department as well as several medical schools found that 332 firefighters who worked at the WTC site in the days and weeks after 9/11 now suffer respiratory problems, including an occupational asthma called Reactive Airway Disease Syndrome (RADS). Newsday reported last October, "One third of nearly 7,000 Ground Zero workers enrolled in a screening program at Mt. Sinai [hospital] are still experiencing health problems related to their work at this site." The Mt. Sinai hospital program also found that 6,300 workers in offices and business in lower Manhattan suffered from "symptoms of respiratory illness similar to asthma" related to 9/11.

According to Newsday , immigrant workers sent to clean up businesses and apartments in lower Manhattan "suffered severe respiratory symptoms and in some cases illnesses involving organ systems besides the lungs." One woman who was sent to clean apartments downtown told the Daily News,"I've had fevers and I have a lot of coughing and nosebleeds." Many of these immigrants were offered a measly $7.50 an hour to risk their lives--and often ended up being cheated out of their pay.

These are the short-term results.

The dust raised by the WTC collapse settled and seeped into every available surface it could penetrate in the immediate area of lower Manhattan. The smoke cloud from Ground Zero also spread poison to a swath of Brooklyn. The toxins clung to windows, entered ventilation systems, settled on drapes, and were embedded in carpets. People were told that soap and water was all that was needed to clean up the mess--but this left the toxic residue undisturbed. Now, as people plod across their offices and living rooms, there's the likelihood that trace amounts are still being thrust into the air and the lungs of those exposed.

There have been various calls for a major cleanup--but those calls have gone unheeded by the government so far.

Hugh Kaufman, an EPA engineer, was asked by cable news network CNBC how much a cleanup would cost at the WTC site. He replied, "Probably one or two days of the occupation of Iraq." The U.S. rulers have made clear their priorities--reopening Wall Street, occupying Iraq, running an empire.

The Myth of Safety

"Based on our investigation and confirmed by the inspector general's investigation, Administrator Christine Todd Whitman began lying to the American people on September 13, 2001, when she said EPA had tested for hazardous materials in the air and none were found above health levels."

Hugh Kaufman, senior EPA engineer who investigated the WTC site for the agency[On CNBC]

In November 2003, the New York Times did a major article on the WTC environment titled "When Breathing is Believing; New Yorkers Doubt EPA Credibility on Air Safety, but Truth is Complex."

Among other things, the Times article attempts to lessen the relevance of the OIG report's revelations. The Times claims, "The Report, in fact, does not conclude that the EPA was wrong in saying, one week after the attack, that the air in Lower Manhattan was `safe to breathe' but only that the scientific underpinning was inadequate."

But the fact is that the OIG report states outright, "The White House Council on Environmental Quality influenced.the information the EPA communicated to the public through its early press releases when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones." In other words, the EPA's reassurance that the air was "safe to breathe" was the direct result of intervention by the Bush White House.

The soft-peddling tone projected in the Times article stands against harsh facts. Two of the tallest buildings in the world totally collapsed in the most densely populated city in the country. An array of poisons was thrown up into the air like history has never seen, posing great health dangers. Yet government officials charged out within a week to give false assurance to the people that things were okay.

So much for all the talk from the government since 9/11 that they are concerned about people's "safety." Firefighters and other who worked at the WTC site--projected as icons of "heroism"--now suffer from serious health problems. Bankers and traders--heralded for "bravery" for getting the money-making machinery back in operation--were sent into buildings contaminated with some of the most deadly substances known to humanity.

Rudolph Giuliani--lauded as "America's mayor"--claimed that students of Stuyvesant High School, close to Ground Zero, could have gone back to school even before an initial cleanup. When students did go back, many came down with respiratory illnesses. Unacceptable lead levels were found in the school building. And more toxic dust was blown into the building when trucks with debris from the WTC cleanup lined up for days in front of the school.

All of this flowed from the efforts of the U.S. imperialists to repair its image of "invulnerability." The deceitful, cold-blooded maneuvers of the government in the face of the post-9/11 environmental calamity points to the truth that this system is fundamentally against the interests of the great majority of the people.