Jackie Alan Giuliano writes in the Lycos website that two key figures have resigned from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the last month. Both officials, the chief investigator for the EPA’s Ombudsman Office and the Ombudsman himself, stated in their resignation letters that the EPA has covered up the existence of deadly pollution in the area of the destroyed World Trade Center towers in New York.
At a New York public hearing in February, Hugh Kaufman, then chief investigator for the EPA’s Ombudsman Office, told a group of scientists, residents, and small business owners that he believed the EPA was deliberately not testing the air quality in the World Trade Center area properly and covering up the reasons why.
“I believe EPA did not do that because they knew it would come up not safe and so they are involved in providing knowingly false information to the public about safety,” Kaufman says.
While the EPA continues to claim that the air around the site is safe, rescue workers, cleanup crews, and residents are reporting respiratory problems. Many believe something in the air from the collapse of the towers is making them sick.
U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes the site, said at a public meeting he called at the Federal Courthouse in Lower Manhattan, “It’s remarkable. Either they have something to hide or they don’t give a damn.”
In November, 2001, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman issued an order to dissolve the ombudsman’s position, an office created to give the public a forum for complaints about the agency?s actions. When the Congressional order that established the office expired last fall, she decided not to ask for renewal.
Many workers from FEMA, New York Fire Fighters and Urban Search and Rescue teams wore no protective masks. Many day laborers, including large numbers of immigrants who speak little or no English, were hired to clean up buildings covered with toxic dust.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has gathered data about the pollution levels at the site. The Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS), a scientific instrument designed to view the site in many different wavelengths, was flown on an aircraft by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA over the World Trade Center area on September 16, 18, 22, and 23, 2001.
A two person crew from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) collected samples of dusts and debris from more than 35 localities within a distance of one kilometer from the World Trade Center site on the evenings of September 17 and 18, 2001. The data showed elevated levels of asbestos and many other pollutants, including the heavy metals, aluminum, chromium, antimony, molybdenum, and barium.
Government officials have tried to downplay the asbestos threat by claiming that it?s mostly chrysotile asbestos, a form considered to be less carcinogenic than other forms. The USGS document describing the results of their tests states that such a claim, ?has not been universally accepted by the scientific community.?
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Charisse Jones writes in USA Today that in the neighborhoods around the World Trade Center site, residents are still concerned about toxins such as lead, PCBs and asbestos that the terrorist attacks may have left behind. Many recovery workers, residents and students downtown have complained of tightness in their chests, bloody noses, sinus infections and other respiratory ailments.
Roughly one in four firefighters who have been working at Ground Zero have what some are calling “World Trade Center cough” or another respiratory complaint, fire department officials say. About 750 have had to take medical leave, according to the firefighters’ union.
Tests of eight Port Authority employees working at Ground Zero showed elevated levels of mercury in their blood. Later tests found that the mercury levels of six workers returned to normal after they were reassigned.
The interiors of at least a few buildings, however, are coated with enough asbestos to be subject to EPA rules for asbestos cleanup. A private scientific firm hired by elected officials found high asbestos levels in dust at two apartment buildings near Ground Zero. EPA rules require that any dust or debris containing more than 1% asbestos be handled according to special rules.
Many of these toxins can have serious effects. Asbestos can cause cancer. PCBs from electronic components and benzene from burning jet fuel are also carcinogens. Dioxins, particulates released in a fire, can be carcinogenic and cause reproductive problems. Long-term exposure to lead can cause neurological damage. And PBDEs ? a flame retardant often found in computers, foam padding and plastics ? act like PCBs and could also be present.
“Because there was absolutely no oversight on the city’s part, we don’t know what lurks in people’s apartments or businesses,” says Madelyn Wils, chairwoman of the local community’s advisory committee. Wils lives six blocks from the World Trade Center and suffered a sore throat, laryngitis and a sinus infection for a few months after the attacks. “If you washed your walls and didn’t clean your drapes, could you have asbestos on your drapes?” she asks. “If you didn’t get rid of your children’s toys, and they have stuffed animals, could they have asbestos? Probably.”
The EPA claims the outdoor air downtown poses no long-term health risks. “Based on our findings, and now really more than 10,000 samples of a wide range of substances, we have found no significant long-term risk posed by the outdoor air,” says EPA spokeswoman.
Many ailments can be attributed to the pulverized concrete and fiberglass that filled the air after the twin towers collapsed, as well as the fires that burned at Ground Zero until late December, medical experts say. Though some of the substances unleashed by the disaster are known to be long-term health hazards, “for the most part, people didn’t get a high enough or long enough exposure for long-term concerns,” says Paul Lioy, associate director of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute. “But there’s enough anecdotal information out there that some good solid studies need to be done to confirm or deny the effects being observed.”
Any potential risk to WTC toxins depends on the level of exposure and for how long. A worker caught in the first toxic plume on Sept. 11 might develop different health problems than a resident who was away but returned days later to an apartment coated with dust. Scientists are trying to figure out these different health risks.
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