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Reckless Disregard

  En español

By Javier Sierra

In October of 2001, three weeks after the 9-11 attacks, I visited Lower Manhattan, where I could see the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center (WTC), what it is known as Ground Zero.

I also had the opportunity to see dozens of stores, whose owners decided not to clean them and leave them just as they looked after the thick layers of dust settled down, as a tribute to that an awful day. Practically nobody could imagine that what we all were seeing was a toxic snow. Nobody, except for the Bush administration.

Now, almost three years later, we learn that the US government miserably failed to fulfill its most fundamental duty —to protect the public's health and safety. Now we learn that the Bush administration deceived us all about the environmental conditions at Ground Zero, and that it hid the fact that the air there was so toxic that rescue workers and residents were facing severe health risks.

Today, hundreds of people are sick and hundreds, perhaps thousands, more may get sick in the future because of the administration's reckless disregard.

Five days after the attacks, the EPA, under the White House's direct supervision, released the following statement: "The new samples confirm previous reports that ambient air quality meets [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standards and consequently is not a cause for public concern."

But a new, hard-hitting Sierra Club report about the true environmental conditions at Ground Zero and what the Bush administration knew about them shows that the government's reassuring statements were "irresponsible."

"The issuance of public safety assurances when two giant towers filled with asbestos, plastics, mercury-contaminated fluorescent lights, and lead-contaminated computers burned uncontrollably and collapsed in a cloud of dust cannot be justified," says the report, released on Wednesday.

"Respiratory protection was insufficient," says Israel "Izzy" Miranda, a New York firefighter and EMS union leader, who arrived at Ground Zero shortly after the first tower collapsed. "In that cloud of dust people were breathing all sorts of stuff. I spat stuff like oatmeal, full of silica and glass fibers."

Miranda and his heroic comrades were breathing much more than that. The Sierra Club report lists the following terrifying toxics the collapsing buildings pulverized and released into the air:

  • Much of the WTC dust was as caustic as ammonia, and in some instances as caustic as drain cleaner.
  • Alarming levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, carcinogenic substances that also cause birth defects, were detected.
  • The catastrophe also released glass fibers, lead, toxins and amounts of asbestos, another carcinogen, ten times higher than in the surrounding areas.

"Greatly relieved," the EPA stated on Sept. 13 that there were "no significant" levels of asbestos dust in the air. The White House, however, deleted the following sentence from the original statement: "Even at low levels, EPA considers asbestos hazardous in this situation."

"I think this is criminal," Miranda says. "When you keep this information from the public and the workers, you lie to them. The government should be ashamed of themselves for not telling us what we were exposed to."

Many of the workers and residents have developed what is known as the WTC cough. Many more show respiratory and digestive problems, and others have lost lung capacity.

Regardless of the fact that the administration knew many of the risks, it told residents they could clean the WTC dust themselves, with wet rags and mops. Hundreds of clean-up workers, most of them Latinos, were not offered any protective equipment to clean sidewalks and buildings, and reportedly some employers discouraged them from using face masks.

Once the deceptions were uncovered —initially thanks to the investigative reporting of the New York Daily News and St. Louis Post-Dispatch— the administration alleged that it did not release the information to the public for fear of causing widespread panic. But experience tells us —and the massive but peaceful evacuations caused by hurricane Charley in Florida are the most recent example— that in general the public reacts in a level-headed, even responsible, way during disasters.

Sadly, the administration seems to have learned nothing from its mistakes because it is planning to turn them into standard operating procedure during future catastrophes. In other words, it plans to turn reckless disregard into government policy.

Javier SierraJavier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.

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