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Breathless Audacity: How the White House Betrayed the Real Heroes of 9/11

 wtc.jpg

(AP Photo/US Navy, Jim Watson)

 by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber

The largest study yet of lung problems among 9/11 rescue workers shows bad news. "Nearly 70 percent of the rescue and cleanup workers who toiled in the dust and fumes at ground zero have had trouble breathing, and many will probably be sick for the rest of their lives," reports Amy Westfeldt. The study, conducted by the Mount Sinai Medical Center, monitored the health of nearly 16,000 ground zero workers. The volunteers who dug through the rubble in search of survivors inhaled dust laden with asbestos, pulverized concrete, mercury and toxins that will leave many of them chronically sick for the rest of their lives.

This tragedy happened because the same government officials who struck heroic poses following America’s worst terrorist attack betrayed the real heroes of the day — the construction workers, police, firefighters and everyday citizens who rushed to the scene and tried to help. This is a topic that we wrote about in our 2004 book, Banana Republicans. As volunteers dug through the rubble, they received assurances — now proven false — that the air in which they worked was safe to breathe.

One of the individuals responsible for this betrayal was James L. Connaughton, who had been appointed earlier that year by President Bush to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Prior to assuming this post, Connaughton defended corporate clients including leading defendants in cases involving asbestos, a major liability concern for corporations because of its proven link to a number of life-threatening respiratory diseases including lung cancer. It is not terribly surprising, therefore, that CEQ played an important role in covering up information about asbestos and other toxins in the air in New York City following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Asbestos was used as an insulating material during construction of the first 40 stories of the first World Trade tower, and it joined the concrete, glass and other materials that were pulverized into a huge cloud of dust when the towers collapsed.

Literally before the dust had cleared, however, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani joined the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency in assuring people that the city’s air was safe. The day after the attacks, the chief of staff for EPA Deputy Administrator Linda Fisher sent an e-mail to senior agency officials, saying that "all statements to the media should be cleared" first by the National Security Council, Bush’s main forum for discussing national-security matters. Fisher, a Bush appointee, had worked previously as a chief lobbyist and political fundraising coordinator for the Monsanto Company, a defendant in asbestos liability cases involving millions of dollars.

The original draft of the EPA’s statement on air quality, written two days after the 9/11 attack, contained a clear warning: "Even at low levels, EPA considers asbestos hazardous in this situation." Before releasing it to the public, however, the White House reworded it to say almost the exact opposite: "Short term, low level exposure to asbestos of the type that might have been produced by the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings is unlikely to cause significant health effects."

The changes were made, according to a report issued two years later by the EPA’s inspector general, at the behest of Connaughton’s Council on Environmental Quality. "As a result of the White House CEQ’s influence," the report noted, "guidance for cleaning indoor spaces and information about the potential health effects from WTC debris were not included in the EPA’s issued press releases. In addition, based on CEQ’s influence, reassuring information was added to at least one press release and cautionary information as deleted from EPA’s draft version of that press release. . . . Every change that was suggested by the CEQ contact was made." According to the EPA chief of staff, in fact, "no press release could be issued for a three- to four-week period after September 11 without approval from the CEQ contact."

On September 16, EPA and OSHA issued another news release stating that "the majority of air and dust samples monitored at the crash site and in lower Manhattan do not indicate levels of concern for asbestos." In another statement two days later, EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman said she was "glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C. that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink." Within a space of ten days after the attacks, the EPA had issued five statements, all of them reassuring the public that the air around the World Trade towers was safe to breathe. Rescue workers at the site trusted those assurances as they dug frantically in hope of finding survivors, often without face masks or other respiratory protection. In fact, those reassurances were as toxic as the air the rescue workers inhaled. It wasn’t until June of the following year that the EPA determined that air quality had returned to pre-9/11 levels, by which time respiratory ailments and other problems began to surface in hundreds of New Yorkers.

Corporate-funded think tanks went even further, declaring not only that the air was safe but that asbestos safety regulations had contributed to the death toll from the terrorist attack. "Asbestos fibers in the air and rubble following the collapse of the World Trade Center are adding to fears in the aftermath of Tuesday’s terrorist attack," wrote Steven Milloy, a columnist for Fox News and an "adjunct scholar" at the Cato Institute. "The true story in the asbestos story, though, is the lives that might have been saved but for 1970s-era hysteria about asbestos." In his column, which was published on the Fox News website just three days after the 9/11 attacks, Milloy went on to speculate that asbestos insulation might have delayed the steel framework of the building from melting "by up to four hours." The only individuals Milloy quoted to support his theory, however, were scientists who had previously worked as paid expert witnesses for the asbestos industry during product liability lawsuits filed by cancer victims. Eight months later, Milloy was still telling Fox News that rescue workers had not been exposed to toxics as he ridiculed firefighters who were suing the city, portraying them as greedy opportunists trying to "get more than just what they’re due."

None of these experts had actually done research comparing asbestos to other heat-resistant insulating materials in an event like the 9/11 attack, and there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to support the claim that asbestos would have delayed the collapse of the towers by even five seconds, let alone four hours. "If you look at what Marks’ Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers and the Fire Protection Handbook have to say about structural steel insulation, it becomes clear that there is nothing magical about asbestos in this application," says Jim Dukelow, a senior research engineer for the U.S. Department of Energy. "It was used because it was less expensive that the other spray-on materials and cheaper to apply than the non-spray-on alternatives. Other materials, specifically mineral wools, have equivalent or better insulation properties."

The official reassurances failed to satisfy Alyssa Katz, who edits City Limits, a nonprofit magazine about New York City affairs. On September 11, she watched as a giant plume of smoke settled over her home in Brooklyn. "The whole neighborhood was raining paper and dust," she recalled. As the months passed, New Yorkers began experiencing health problems. "Many people who live or work in lower Manhattan are convinced that they have not been told the truth," she reported. "They say that they’re sick — throats sore, lungs hacking. Cleanup workers, local residents, and, most of all, firefighters at ground zero attest to intense respiratory illnesses unlike anything they recall experiencing before."

On October 26, 2001, New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez wrote a front-page story contradicting ??the official government line, detailing EPA test findings of notable quantities of toxic substances including dioxins, PCBs, benzene, lead and chromium in addition to asbestos. The day Gonzalez’s column appeared, EPA officials held a joint press conference with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to dismiss the story, calling it irresponsible, and Gonzalez came under increased scrutiny from his own paper, and several different editors were assigned to review his subsequent columns on the topic. "From that day on, the whole attitude toward the story changed," he says. "I did several more columns, but every one of them was highly scrutinized."

Within the EPA as well, dissent was marginalized. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the EPA had an ombudsman, Robert Martin, who was assigned to independently assess and comment on EPA decisions. Martin and his chief investigator, Hugh Kaufman, criticized the agency’s handling of air-quality information following the terrorist attacks. On April 16, 2002, Kaufman spoke to The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The terrorist attack’s "first set of victims," he said, "are the people who were killed when the attack happened. The second set of victims are the people who are exposed to the chemicals: to lead, to mercury, to cadmium, dioxin, benzene, asbestos, all these chemicals that have spread throughout lower Manhattan and have landed in their apartments, in their schools, in the office buildings—and these Americans who are also suffering from the attack have been abandoned by the government. And that’s not right. It’s our job at EPA not to count the dead bodies ten or twenty years down the line, not to operate on people to get rid of cancer. It’s our job to prevent cancer. And we fell down on the job."

A few days later, while Martin was out of town on EPA business, the agency announced a plan to place the ombudsman’s office under the direct control of its inspector general, a move that would effectively end its autonomy (the whole purpose of an ombudsman in the first place). New rules were imposed, forbidding the ombudsman from mediating disputes between the public and the agency, or from talking with lawmakers or reporters without permission. Martin returned to his office to find that the locks of his office were changed, and his files and computer had been taken. He and Kaufman resigned in protest. "They have portrayed this transfer as granting more independence for the ombudsman function when, in fact, it destroys it completely," Martin said. "I cannot operate with that falsehood."

A year after the attacks, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study by David Prezant, the deputy chief medical officer for the New York City Fire Department. It showed that 332 city firefighters had developed "World Trade Center cough" and that roughly half of them remained on medical leave or light duty. "Although no firefighters have retired from respiratory problems, nearly 500 firefighters may have to retire by year’s end because of their failing health," the Washington Post reported.

"We asked many times, is it safe here?" said Jack Ginty of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, many of whose members died in the towers’ collapse, while others went on to dig frantically in the rubble searching for survivors. "We were told by city officials, federal officials, ‘oh, yeah, we’ve tested the air, the air is fine,’" Ginty recalled in August 2003, "Now, finally the truth comes out that they have been lying to us all the way along. Had we known, we could have operated in a different fashion."


Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber are the co-authors of several books including Weapons of Mass Deception and The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies and the Mess in Iraq, which will be published by Tarcher/Penguin in September.

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