Left in the Dust

9/11 aftermath. Credit: Brian Pennington, FlickrCC

Ten years ago al-Qaeda carried out the most deadly and dramatic terrorist attack in history. Hijackers turned the two 110-story World Trade Center (WTC) towers in New York City into a toxic rubble pile some 10 stories high. A cloud of airborne asbestos, mercury, lead, dioxins, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) from electrical equipment and the flame retardants PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), among other toxic contaminants, filled the air around the site for months as the remains of the towers smoldered on. One researcher likened the emissions from the site to those released by “dozens of asbestos factories, incinerators and crematoria—as well as a volcano.”

Once survivors were rescued and identifiable human remains recovered, a multi-agency cleanup team began the arduous job of trucking away debris and attempting to decontaminate the 16-acre WTC site and surrounding parts of Lower Manhattan. Planners from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) thought this massive undertaking could take as long as three years, but workers managed to get it done in less than nine months.

Unsettling Questions

While the cleanup effort was nothing short of heroic—more than 100,000 truckloads full of debris were removed to landfills on Staten Island and elsewhere—citizen groups remain critical of the way it was carried out. According to Jenna Orkin of the World Trade Center Environmental Organization, the cleanup covered a far too limited and arbitrarily determined area. The toxic dust cloud left behind by the toppled towers enveloped large swaths of Brooklyn, for instance, yet this borough that directly neighbors Lower Manhattan was not even tested for contamination let alone cleaned up. And even in areas covered by the cleanup, residents were not instructed to discard soft furnishings such as carpets and sofas which absorb contaminants and could never be fully cleaned.

“They couched the cleanup in terms of, ‘If you’re concerned, we’ll come clean your apartment out of the goodness of our hearts,’” reports Orkin. “However since their flier explicitly told people that the EPA did not expect long-term health consequences from whatever might still be in their apartments, about 80% of the people to whom the testing program was offered decided not to bother.”

The danger really hit home for Orkin when she realized that the high school that her teenage son was attending every day—Stuyvesant High School, only four blocks from Ground Zero—was still heavily contaminated with asbestos, lead and other toxins months after the 9/11 attacks despite EPA and Board of Education assurances to the contrary.

“Particulate matter 2.5—dust that is small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and not come out again—was often higher at Stuyvesant than at Ground Zero,” Orkin reported at Congressional hearings in 2002. “Lead in the ventilation system, of which wipe samples were taken only when parents threatened to sue the Board of Education, was 30 times the level one would expect to find on the floor.” She added that “there is no official standard for lead in ventilation systems.” And asbestos was found at 250 times the allowable exposure limit in the school’s auditorium, which had been used as a triage center immediately after 9/11.

“Despite all these findings, the [Department of Education] continues to maintain the building is and always has been safe,” Orkin reported. “The lead, they said after the results of the wipe samples were announced, would stay in the walls. The asbestos, they said after the results of the auditorium samples were announced, would stay in the carpet.”

Soon thereafter, Orkin pulled her son out of Stuyvesant, but has kept working on local and federal officials to own up to their mistakes and commit to funding and implementing a cleanup regimen worthy of the still-lingering contamination at the high school and in hundreds of other affected buildings nearby.

Ground Zero, Reexamined

The truth is, Orkin adds, no one can be sure how thorough a job was done ridding Ground Zero and the surrounding areas of contamination because the EPA failed to conduct adequate tests to find out. And, she says, it’s only a matter of time before these lingering contaminants cause cancers, reproductive problems or other health issues for those who have spent lots of time living and/or working in Lower Manhattan since the 2001 calamity.

Bob Gulack, an attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) working in Lower Manhattan on 9/11 who followed the premature call to return to his office for work less than a month later, shares Orkin’s fears. “The central fact to understand is that the mandatory initial testing and cleanup, as outlined by the EPA’s own inspector general, was never performed,” he says. “Not by Bush’s EPA and not by Obama’s EPA.”

While Gulack survived 9/11 without injury, he suffers from hyper-reactive lungs as a result of his exposure to small particulates and other contaminants at his job site when he went back to work in October 2011. Since then, he risks bronchitis and pneumonia if exposed to the kind of contaminants still there, and no longer works as an SEC attorney as a result. (He now teaches English at SUNY Rockland.)

Gulack says the government still needs to test and decontaminate hundreds of buildings in Lower Manhattan. “The EPA should begin at once to test within buildings, especially HVAC systems that are the long-term reservoirs for this sort of contamination,” he says. “They should move outwards in concentric circles from Ground Zero until they can no longer detect contamination. Then they should order a comprehensive cleanup wherever it is necessary.”

Gulack adds that many harmful contaminants released by the burning do not evaporate or disappear. “They will only be removed from dirty buildings to the extent that people breathe the contaminants in—and are thus endangered,” he says. “You cannot carry out an uncontrolled demolition of 220 stories in the middle of New York City and hope the debris will simply vanish without hurting anyone.  But that has been our national policy for a decade.”

Gulack and other activists were energized in February 2006 when a judge in a lower federal court upheld their demand for testing in a pre-trial ruling. But a federal appellate judge threw the case out after the EPA’s lawyer told the court that the government, in Gulack’s words, “does indeed have the right to mislead the population on contamination issues.”

The Health Crisis Continues

Of course, Gulack isn’t the only one with compromised health as a result of the 9/11 attacks. Tens of thousands of survivors, emergency response personnel, construction workers aiding in the clean-up and other residents and workers who returned days after the attack to their homes and offices are also suffering from a wide range of health problems. A study by the New York City Fire Department’s Office of Medical Affairs (and published in The New England Journal of Medicine in April 2010 found that the vast majority of the nearly 14,000 firefighters and emergency medical workers on the scene at Ground Zero in the first two weeks after the attacks lost about 10% of their lung function on average. In most cases, the loss is permanent. The study’s lead author, Dr. David Prezant, describes how “an immense, dense particulate matter cloud…enveloped these workers for days” causing acute and persistent inflammation of the airways and the lungs. The result is the now-notorious “World Trade Center Cough,” which impacts thousands of 9/11 veterans to this day and serves as a daily reminder of their efforts and the toll it has taken on their health.

And with a decade gone by, so-called “late-onset” health problems are setting in, too. Researchers believe that a spate of cancer deaths in the last couple of years among 9/11 rescuers and cleanup crews is a harbinger of things to come. In the rush to save lives and clear the area, many emergency responders worked without respirators which could have kept asbestos and other noxious chemicals out of their lungs.

Meanwhile, a study found that women living near Ground Zero after 9/11 who gave birth at one of three hospitals in Lower Manhattan following the attacks had high concentrations of the flame retardant PDBE in their cord blood samples. The higher the PBDE concentrations, the lower their children scored on tests of mental and physical development at ages one through four and six. The study, from New York’s Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health and published in Environmental Health Perspectives in January 2010, concluded that high concentrations of PDBE in mothers’ cord blood could negatively impact the neurological and physical development of babies in utero, an association that had only previously been established in animal studies. Researchers consider PDBE one of several endocrine-disrupting chemicals that the body may mistake for a naturally occurring hormone, throwing off the body’s regulatory system and potentially impacting a host of functions including IQ, socialization, communication, mood, sleep and reproduction.

Moving Forward

Though it comes late for many families still suffering from the aftereffects of 9/11, the just-passed James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act seeks to provide the health support still needed for those impacted by the attacks. The landmark bill, signed into law by President Obama in January 2011, allocates $7.4 billion for health monitoring and financial aid to the living victims of 9/11.

Gulack says the support is welcome, but won’t solve the contamination concerns. “We have, after nearly a decade, secured some funding for medical services,” he says. “But we are still sending children into contaminated schools, firemen into contaminated firehouses, policemen into contaminated police offices, and residents and workers into contaminated facilities.”

And the act has been criticized for failing to cover aid for cancer victims, even for those 9/11 responders who have developed rare cancers or cancers at a young age following their work at the site. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded that there was “insufficient evidence…at this time to propose a rule to add cancer, or a certain type of cancer” to the list of qualifying diseases that would be covered. As the government continues to review the medical literature, there is a chance such cancer cases will be covered in the future, but not until late 2012 at the earliest.

While 2,752 people died in Lower Manhattan as a direct result of the 9/11 attacks, the environmental and health legacy of that fateful day is ongoing, ensuring more suffering and more lost lives to come.