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Background Attack Aftermath Evidence Misinformation Analysis Memorial

Ground Zero Hazards

Environmental and Health Impacts of the WTC Bombing

The explosion of each Tower blanketed Lower Manhattan with a thick cloud of toxic dust.

The destruction of the Twin Towers at 9:59 AM and 10:29 AM choked Lower Manhattan with vast dust clouds rising over 1000 feet, each time plunging the surrounding streets into a pitch-black gloom that lasted for minutes. Propelled by the wind, the cloud moved south over Brooklyn and Staten Island, depositing its fallout. Many people in the immediate area, and particularly rescue workers, were subjected to an unknown cocktail of gases and airborne particulates. In the days after September 11 the EPA and OSHA took air samples and reported that they found no excessive levels of asbestos, lead, or volatile organic compounds in the air, except in or around Ground Zero. Contrary to these reports, dust samples taken from surfaces near Ground Zero did show very high levels of asbestos. 1   Significant quantities of asbestos had remained in the Twin Towers despite asbestos abatement programs.

The WTC towers were built from 1968 to 1972. A slurry mixture of asbestos and cement was sprayed on as fireproofing material. But this practice was banned by the New York City Council in 1971. This halted the spraying, but not before hundreds of tons of the material had been applied. Some but not all of it was later removed in an abatement program. Asbestos was also used in other applications that ordinarily do not leave a friable (crumbly) residue, but that can be turned to dust under the extraordinary conditions that existed on Sept. 11. The combustion of building materials and furnishings by jet fuel might also be expected to generate some rather exotic chemicals. 2  

EPA: Concealing and Aggravating a Health Catastrophe

In the days and weeks following the attack the Environmental Protection Agency gave assurances to New Yorkers that the dust permeating Lower Manhattan and the smoke still emanating from Ground Zero did not pose a health risk. The agency issued five press releases within ten days of the attack assuring people that the air was safe to breathe, despite an absence of data to support such assurances. 3   In August of 2003, it was revealed that the EPA had been muzzled by the Bush administration. EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley issued a report on August 21, 2003, admitting that the reassurances were unfounded, and that the public statements of the agency were being influenced by the National Security Council, under the direction of the White House. The EPA, according to the report, had been influenced to "add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones."

A 2004 report by the Sierra Club went further than previous reporting in detailing the cover-up of the public health hazards of Ground Zero. The report's summary indicates gross malfeasance by EPA, FEMA, and OSHA.

  • The Ground Zero health risk cover-up did not result from a poorly informed government. The World Trade Center attack involved the open, uncontrolled burning and demolition of two huge buildings - conduct that would be illegal in any state of the Union because of the known risks to human health. This report finds that the federal government ignored its own long-standing body of knowledge about pollution from incineration and demolition. The notion that EPA had to wait for test data before telling people that the pollution posed health risks is absurd. EPA should have issued a health warning, based on its own knowledge of pollution, before any test data came in.
  • EPA failed to investigate and disclose toxic hazards properly. Oddly, EPA's website reports that it found no polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) - cancer-causing chemicals generally released by combustion of mixed materials - "in any air samples," although four independent tests found them at elevated levels and even EPA's own research scientists reported in a scientific journal that they found them at levels that Science magazine deemed worthy of "the most serious kind of concern."
  • The federal government failed to change its safety assurances even after it became clear that people were getting ill, and even after a survey of federal employees of a sister agency in the same building as EPA at 290 Broadway revealed that they were suffering health impacts - a survey that, this report finds, the federal government did not release to the public at the time. It was quietly published in a journal in 2002.
  • Many Ground Zero workers did not have proper protection, especially in early weeks. This report explains that federal assurances of safety gave workers conflicting messages about the need for respirator masks, which are difficult and exhausting to wear.
  • OSHA refused to enforce worker safety standards at Ground Zero. It wrongly claimed that it had no authority in national emergencies. It then continued this refusal long after the emergency had passed, and long after it became apparent that serious health and safety risks were occurring despite efforts by OSHA staff to advise safety.
  • EPA and FEMA, in concert with New York City's own health department, told families that they could clean up the contaminated dust themselves with wet rags. In fact, they actually discouraged area residents from wearing safety masks. 4  

In mid-2006, as evidence of a health disaster mounted, a 2002 executive order directing the EPA's administrator to classify information as secret was revealed by the NY Daily News. 5  

Mean airborne concentration of seven PAHs at Ground Zero and at 290 E. Broadway, Manhattan, September 2001 through April 2002.

Toxic Emissions Persist for Over Five Months

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) remained a health hazard into 2003. EPA's National Exposure Research Laboratory (NERL) collected air samples from late September 2001 through May 2002 at two locations: at the fence surrounding Ground Zero, and at 290 E. Broadway (about 0.4 miles from Ground Zero). PAH levels recorded at Ground Zero's periphery were much higher and remained elevated for much longer than those recorded at the E. Broadway location, leaving no doubt that Ground Zero was the source of the pollution. 6  


Program to Monitor Ground Zero Workers' Health Disappears

Following the attack the Mount Sinai Medical Center set up the World Trade Center Medical Screening Program to monitor the health of Ground Zero workers. However, federal workers were barred from that program, told that their health would be monitored by a program run by the federal government. The New York Daily News reported that the Department of Health and Human Services received $3.7 million for the screening program, but the program started and stopped in 2003, with fewer than 600 people having been seen. 7  


Lawsuits Demand Health Monitoring

On March 10, 2004, a class action lawsuit was filed against the EPA and several of its current and former administrators. The suit, filed on behalf of residents, students, and workers exposed to toxins inside of buildings, included a demand that the defendants "fund a medical monitoring program which includes testing and preventive screening for conditions resulting from exposure to World Trade Center dust." 8  

This lawsuit is one of several class action lawsuits demanding redress for the victims of Ground Zero exposures.


Evidence of a Health Disaster Mounts

In a November 2005 meeting of the American College of Chest Physicians, Dr. David Pezant, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine presented the findings of a report on the lung function of 12,079 firefighters, many of whom worked at Ground Zero. The study found rates of pulmonary function decline up to 12 times higher than normal in firefighters exposed to the dust-filled air following the destruction of the buildings. 9   According to New York News Day, the study showed that the average decline in lung function experienced by Ground Zero workers was equivalent to 12 years of aging. 10   As of April, 2006, the World Trade Center Screening Program of the Mount Sinai Medical Center had recorded that about 8,000 people were requiring treatment because of injuries arising from exposure to Ground Zero air. 11  

Reports of deaths attributed to exposure to the Ground Zero environment began to appear in early 2006. According to a January 17 AP report, three men who searched for victims in the World Trade Center ruins died within a seven-month period. 12   In April, the New York Post reported that six 9/11 responders had developed brain cancer, and three of them died. 13   The same paper reported in June that 283 World Trade Center rescue and recovery workers had been diagnosed with cancer. 14   In May of 2007, New York City’s chief medical examiner amended the death certificate of 42-year-old Felicia Dunn-Jones to indicate that her exposure to World Trade Center dust contributed to her death. 15  

According to a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the workers, more than forty Ground Zero workers had died from exposure to the toxics as of April. 16   By June, the lawsuit's lawyer was claiming that the deaths numbered fifty-seven. 17  

The numbers of deaths and serious injuries from Ground Zero exposures may as yet be vastly underestimated given the gaps in information about the exposures, and the limited funding for health monitoring of responders. 18   The federal government allocated only $125 million for the responders in its $21.4 billion federal aid package passed in 2002. Of the estimated 40,000 Ground Zero workers, only 16,000 had been screened by the Mount Sinai World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program by mid-2006. 19  


1. Is Ground Zero Safe? New study suggests more asbestos at disaster site than previously revealed, MSNBC News, 10/5/01 [cached]
2. World Trade Center: Response, Recovery and Reconstruction, New York Law Journal, 10/4/01 [cached]
3. White House edited EPA's 9/11 reports, seattlepi.com, 8/23/03 [cached]
4. Air Pollution (and Deception) at Ground Zero, sierraclub.org,
5. 'Secret' 9/11 lies?: 2002 exec order let EPA bury info on air hazards, NY Daily News, 7/28/06 [cached]
6. Health and Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Disaster, Environmental Health Perspectives, 5/1/04 [cached]
7. Fury over loss of 9/11 heroes' health program, NYDailyNews.com, [cached]
8. Case Information: Environmental Protection Agency, BergerMontigue.com, [cached]
9. 9/11 firefighters show long-term lung damage, Reuters.co.uk, 11/3/05 [cached]
10. Their '9/11 plague', New York News Day, 6/1/06 [cached]
11. Problems mount from 9/11 fallout, BBC News, 4/12/06 [cached]
12. Within 7 Months, 3 Sept. 11 Workers Die, SFGate.com, 1/17/06 [cached]
13. Six NYC 9/11 Officers Stricken With Brain Cancer, officer.com, 4/12/06 [cached]
14. Cancer Hits 283 Rescuers of 9/11, New York Post, 6/11/06 [cached]
15. For the First Time, New York Links a Death to 9/11 Dust, New York Times, 5/24/07 [cached]
16. City Socks away $1B Amid WTC Workers' Aid Battle, New York Post, 4/16/06 [cached]
17. Lawsuit says poisons killed 57 at WTC site, New York Daily News, 6/23/06 [cached]
18. Medical View of 9/11's Dust Show Big Gaps, New York Times, 10/24/06 [cached]
19. 'Absolutely Horrifying', Newsweek, 6/1/06 [cached]

page last modified: 2013-03-21