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Documents Show Feds Downplayed Ground Zero Health Risks
Posted on Sep 11, 2011
By Anthony DePalma, ProPublica
Dioxin, a pollutant that can cause cancer, damage the immune system and lead to developmental problems, is most harmful when absorbed through food. But it can also cause harm when inhaled. OSHA discussed the alarming test results internally:
“Just received a sample taken at the WTC (in or near the plume I believe),” an OSHA employee wrote in an October 2001 email to John Henshaw, the agency’s administrator. “The result was very high … EPA is saying it is one of the highest levels they have ever seen.” The level was about 1,000 times higher than normal for dioxin.
Henshaw forwarded the message to Patricia Clark, regional administrator of OSHA’s New York office, and asked what she knew about the dioxin sampling. By early that same afternoon, Clark wrote back calmly reminding her boss that OSHA does not have a standard for exposure to dioxin, and that the extremely high level “would drop off dramatically away from the plume.”
A year later, the EPA acknowledged in a report that dioxin levels had reached “the highest ambient concentrations that have ever been reported,” but discounted their significance because the dioxin had not been ingested.
Newman said he was shocked to find that OSHA had knowledge of this early on in the cleanup and did not issue a warning. “There is no evidence or indication that this information had any significant impact on their operation or the way they communicated risk to the workers,” he said.
OSHA did not respond to requests for comment on the documents or its handling of this matter.
The NYCOSH documents make clear that, contrary to the claims of some critics, local officials recognized the extraordinary hazards of working on the pile and tried to address them, sometimes with little support from their federal counterparts.
City health officials consistently urged responders working amid the rubble to wear proper respiratory equipment, including specially fitted respirator masks, throughout the cleanup. Kelly McKinney, the associate commissioner of the New York City Department of Health in 2001, repeatedly asked OSHA to enforce orders for workers to wear respirators. OSHA officials responded that they were acting in an advisory role and would not issue fines because that would slow down operations. Instead, OSHA said it would encourage voluntary compliance with the regulations.
The voluntary approach had limitations. According to one email, when an OSHA representative tried to set up a mobile distribution point for respirator masks, he was reportedly told to leave by a city fire department battalion chief. “The Fire Department takes care of its own,” the chief said. “We don’t need any help from civilians.”
As part of its response to the 2003 Inspector General report, the EPA promised to improve how it communicated risk in rapidly changing emergencies, such as the 9/11 attack.
An agency spokesman said that since then, the EPA has helped develop a government-wide plan for crisis response. The agency also has opened an Emergency Operations Center that provides the agency’s data and expertise to other government agencies during emergencies.
Nevertheless, some 9/11 veterans, including Nadler, the ground zero congressman, say they would still question government assurances that air was safe in the aftermath of a similar disaster.
“I’d be very leery about believing it unless I saw real evidence,” said Nadler. “There’s always a pressure on government to say that things are better, there’s always pressure to cover up the extent of a disaster, and depending on the character of the officials in charge they may or may not yield to that pressure.”
Anthony DePalma, a former New York Times correspondent who covered 9/11 health issues, is author of “City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance and 9/11.”
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