Trade Center Debris Produced Unprecedented Toxic Fumes
NEW YORK, New York, September 10, 2003 (ENS) - The smoldering remains of the World Trade Center acted like a chemical factory, cooking together the components of the buildings and their contents and emitting gases of toxic metals, acids and organics for at least six weeks, according to a new study by air quality experts.
The findings come as the Bush administration faces increasing pressure from critics who believe officials misled the public about the health risks from the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that destroyed the twin towers on September 11, 2001.
The conditions would have been "brutal" for people working at Ground Zero without respirators and slightly less so for those working or living in immediately adjacent buildings, said the study's lead author, Thomas Cahill, a physics and atmospheric science professor at the University of California at Davis.
Cahill heads a collaborative association of air quality experts and scientists at several universities and national laboratories. The report, released today at a American Chemical Society meeting in New York, builds on findings released in a February 2002 report, which identified very fine metallic aerosols in unprecedented amounts from the massive debris pile.
"Now that we have a model of how the debris pile worked, it gives us a much better idea of what the people working on and near the pile were actually breathing," Cahill said. "Our first report was based on particles that we collected one mile away. This report gives a reasonable estimate of what type of pollutants were actually present at Ground Zero."
When the trade center towers burned and collapsed, tons of concrete, glass, furniture, carpets, insulation, computers and paper were reduced to enormous, oxygen poor debris piles that slowly burned until December 19, 2001.
The researchers explain that in that hot pile, some of the constituent elements of debris combined with organic matter and abundant chlorine from papers and plastics, and then escaped to the surface as metal rich gases.
These then either burned or chemically decomposed into very fine particles capable of penetrating deeply into human lungs.
Four classes of particles listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as potentially harmful to human health were found in the trade center air samples by the research team. These are: fine and very fine transition metals, which interfere with lung chemistry; acids, in this case sulfuric acid, which attack cilia and lung cells directly; very fine, insoluble particles of glass, which travel through the lungs to the bloodstream and heart; and high temperature organic matter, many components of which are known to be carcinogens.
"For each of these four classes of pollutant, we recorded the highest levels we have ever seen in over 7,000 measurements we have made of very fine air pollution throughout the world, including Kuwait and China," Cahill said.
The new study also confirms, Cahill said, that the very fine particles observed were almost totally from the trade center debris pile and not from other upwind sources, such as power plants and the diesel trucks used to haul away the debris.
After the debris fire was out, pollution levels dropped, Cahill said. The group's measurements made at the site in May 2002 showed that levels of almost all of the very fine components had declined more than 90 percent.
The report comes amidst growing controversy about the handling of health warnings by Bush administration officials.
A report released last month by the EPA's Inspector General that said the White House pressured the agency to remove cautionary statements from news releases distributed after the attacks and to include statements that would reassure that the risks to public health were minimal.
The report said the agency did not have sufficient data to support its announcement on September 18, 2001 that the air in Lower Manhattan was safe to breathe.
The report also criticizes the agency for failing to press residents and businesses to seek professional cleaning in contaminated apartments instead of doing the cleaning themselves.
Senate Democrats, in particular New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, are threatening to block the Bush administration's nominee to head the EPA in order to force the White House to respond to questions about the report.
"Our government let us down. And it was not by accident, and it was not a mistake during the chaos of those terrible days," Clinton said on the Senate floor last week. "A national crisis does not justify giving people the wrong information and continuing to do so days and weeks and months after the event."
Former EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman said the administration did remove words of caution from agency releases, but that she did not object to this decision and that the agency did not mislead the public.
The EPA's Acting Administrator Marianne Horinko, in a memo sent to agency employees Tuesday, defended the agency from the claim that it withheld critical health information from the people of New York.
"Anyone who knows EPA and its people, who has seen them perform in other crisis situations, and who understands the ethic that defines our people would know that nothing could be further from the truth," Horinko wrote. "At no time did EPA compromise its mission to protect public health."
But there is no shortage of critics of the agency's performance in the wake of 9/11.
Air samples take on September 19, 2001 - one day after the EPA declared the "air was safe to breathe" - had "alarmingly high levels of toxins such as asbestos and fiberglass," said Joel Kupferman, executive director of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project.
Kupferman's organization received 800 pages of raw data from the EPA through a Freedom of Information Act request that indicate agency officials did not provide the public with the entire picture.
The data reveal that the EPA, the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration and other health and environmental agencies - in spite of their assurances to the contrary - "knew of the dangers present at Ground Zero and beyond, on the ground and in the air," Kupferman said.