February 13 2002
Scientists Knew WTC Air Posed Health Risk
by Margaret Ramirez
In the days after the World Trade Center collapsed, a team of top government scientists confirmed that the smoky, gray dust in the air was highly corrosive and a potentially serious health threat.
Experts from the U.S. Geological Survey found some of the dust was as caustic as liquid drain cleaner, and alerted the government agencies involved in the disaster. But, neither workers breathing in the toxic air, nor residents of lower Manhattan were ever informed.
Failure to release those findings, which were first reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Sunday, are among the serious criticisms being leveled at the government for its handling of environmental health issues after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Even as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues to assert "the air is safe," several recent studies paint a more troubling picture for those living and working near Ground Zero.
According to the Post-Dispatch report, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey collected dust samples from 35 locations including window ledges and car windshields from Sept 16. through Sept. 23. Most of the samples had a pH of 9.5 to 10.5, about the same alkalinity as ammonia. Two samples had a pH of 11.8 to 12.1, the equivalent to what is found in liquid drain cleaner.
On Sept. 27, the information was e-mailed to government agencies responding to the disaster. But, to this date, the EPA has released no information on pH levels.
Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, said the decision not to publicize the findings prevented people from making appropriate decisions on when to return to their offices and homes.
"It is distressing that these findings were found early and never made public," Shufro said. "For an agency that is charged with protecting the public, it's a glaring oversight. It's an oversight which has had unfortunate consequences for people's health."
Officials from the EPA did not respond for comment, but spokeswoman Bonnie Bellows told the Post Dispatch "the EPA had enough information on alkalinity without doing further analysis."
On Friday, the Natural Resources Defense Council plans to release a report exposing the failures of city agencies in responding to the attacks.
Eric Goldstein, senior attorney of the group, said the study concludes that the city Department of Environmental Protection failed to respond to residents' concerns on safety and cleanup standards. "This was a manageable and solvable set of issues of a small group in a compact area," Goldstein said. "Yet, the [former Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani administration placed health concerns on lower priority than other issues like economic recovery."
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.