EPA Downplayed Post–9/11 Asbestos and Other Safety Hazards in NYC, Report Says

Manhattan Residents Unaware of Air Toxicity Due to Political Censorship

September 12, 2003-The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told the public that the air in New York City was safe to breathe just a week after the events of September 11, 2001, although it did not have sufficient data to make that statement, according to areport by the agency's own inspector general. After the terrorist attack on the twin towers, building debris and dust contained asbestos, lead, glass fibers, and concrete dust. However, the White House Council on Environmental Quality urged the EPA to "add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones" in its press release. One of the deleted statements was about the increased negative effects of contaminated air on children and the elderly.

Particularly troubling was the EPA's handling of the asbestos cleanup in apartments, homes, and offices surrounding the Ground Zero area. Early press releases stated that residents could clean their own businesses and homes of asbestos-containing dust if they followed "recommended" procedures and used "appropriate" filters. However, the releases did not specify what was "recommended" and "appropriate." The agency deleted language that encouraged residents to get their areas cleaned by asbestos abatement professionals, according to the report. This omission increased long-term health risks because many residents who cleaned their own homes did not use respirators and other professional cleaning equipment. Businesses may have hired janitorial workers who were not knowledgeable about asbestos or likely to worry about their own asbestos exposure. The report concluded that the EPA's delay in providing guidance unnecessarily put residents and workers as risk for future development of asbestos diseases.

The report also noted that truck drivers transporting asbestos-containing debris from Ground Zero did not always follow proper procedures such as wetting down the material and covering it with a tarp to prevent dust from escaping. Some debris was loaded and unloaded near homes and schools, creating an increased risk of asbestos exposure for the community.

The Politics of Asbestos Exposure

When asked why the EPA releases left out important information, the author of the report, EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley concluded that the reason was "... to get workers back to work and to have a positive impact on Wall Street" (NBC News Interview, September 3, 2003). However, both EPA Acting Administrator Marianne Horinko, and Chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality James Connaughton have defended the EPA, claiming that there was no coverup or manipulation.

Meanwhile, environmental groups and New York officials have criticized the EPA. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) has called for the use of new, more aggressive asbestos sampling methods in Lower Manhattan buildings and schools and an EPA-led cleanup that meets Superfund guidelines (Press Releases, August 22, 2003, and September 2, 2003). Senator Hillary Clinton has sent a letter to President Bush demanding to know why the agency provided incomplete information about New York City air quality (Washington Post, August 27, 2003).

At Brayton Purcell, we are concerned about the problems of asbestos exposure in New York and elsewhere. If you have a question about asbestos exposure and your legal rights or about your exposure to other toxic substances, please feel free to contact our asbestos attorneys. We have extensive experience in handling cases concerning asbestos and other toxic pollutants.