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article imageGround Zero health risks downplayed by US gov’t, new docs show

By Lynn Herrmann     Sep 11, 2011 in Politics
New York - Recently surfaced documents reveal federal officials in New York and Washington took more measures than previously reported in downplaying health risks which could have protected thousands of people due to contaminated air at Ground Zero.
New information in the documents (found here) also show the government took added measures to misrepresent or conceal information on those health risks, as well. Possibly competing goals of projecting the image of a nation undaunted by the 9/11 attacks versus ensuring New Yorkers’ safety is not revealed in the documents.
The records include email messages and interagency correspondence from such federal departments as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Co-published with the Guardian, Pro Publica reports the Mount Sinai School of Medicine has tested over 25,000 ground zero responders suspected dust-related illnesses, treating many of them. “The misleading communications by civic leaders and their failure to insist on respiratory protection in the days, weeks and months after the initial rescue operation ended undoubtedly contributed and will continue to contribute to sickness in the rescue and recovery workers and in the citizens of Lower Manhattan,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of Mount Sinai’s Department of Community and Preventative Medicine.
The documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), a labor union health group, and were examined by Pro Publica. They add additional data to previous reports over the White House role in shaping ground zero contamination information.
Christine Todd Whitman, director of the EPA in 2001, was the target of a harsh report in 2003 by the EPA Inspector General which noted she had told New Yorkers the “air is safe to breathe” even without facts to back up her assertion.
Although Whitman declined comment on the new documents, in 2007 she appeared before a congressional committee investigating the agency’s response to 9/11. “It's utterly false then for EPA critics to assert that I or others at the agency set about to mislead New Yorkers and rescue workers,” she told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Pro Publica reports. “Every statement I made was based on what experts, who had a great deal of experience in these things, conveyed to me.”
Several instances in the newly released documents show how officials projected assurances over air quality even before test results were available or minimized the amount of contamination which had been found.
On Sept. 13, just two days after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, Samuel Thernstrom, associate director of communications at the environmental council, called the New York OSHA office to let them know Christine Todd Whitman - the EPA administrator in 2001 - was headed to the city for a statement to reporters on agency air test results, “since all monitoring reports have been so positive thus far,” an OSHA email shows, according to Pro Publica.
However, EPA’s own records reveal only a handful of asbestos tests had been done before Sept. 14, with test results for other contaminants not received until Sept. 23.
In another instance, an email dated Sept. 20 shows John Henshaw, chief administrator of OSHA, said he’d had a phone call from Thernstorm warning him senators were asking questions regarding OSHA and EPA cooperative efforts at ground zero.
Henshaw then ordered OSHA staff members to collect information for putting aside such concerns. “I would like to have the information at hand before any inquiries come in, to nip any criticism in the bud,” he wrote in the email, Pro Publica reports. “They have a history of taking pot shots at us and if we can respond quickly, in a positive, strong, well thought out way, we may take some wind out of there (cq) sails.”
The new documents also contradict a joint press statement by the EPA and OSHA in 2001 which claimed asbestos levels in dust samples collected from buildings and cars were only “slightly above” the 1 percent level applicable by federal regulations. These documents show the samples contained 2.1 to 3.3 asbestos, amounts 200 percent to 300 percent higher than government standards.
“These documents confirm that what happened at the World Trade Center is that we proceeded with a minimalist approach in terms of caution and never really scaled it up as it became necessary, rather than assuming the worst-case scenario and scaling it back as appropriate,” said David M. Newman, a NYCOSH workplace safety expert, according to Pro Publica.
Another example of manipulating toxic air quality reports was found by NYCOSH in an original draft set to be released by EPA and OSHA which read: “The concern raised by these samples would be for workers at the cleanup site and for those workers who might be returning to their offices on or near Water Street.” However, after the White House reviewed the draft and revised it, office workers in New York’s financial district were told everything was okay, with the final draft reading: “Our tests show it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York's financial district.”
The NYCOSH documents also show ongoing criticism of government officials for not being forthcoming with vital information, as these agencies failed to sound the warning bell even when test results started showing alarmingly high levels of dioxin at ground zero.
According to the new documents, an internal message of OSHA’s shows how misleading the agency was immediately after the 9/11 attack. An October 2001 email from an OSHA employee to Henshaw, the agency’s administer noted: “Just received a sample taken at the WTC (in or near the plume I believe). The result was very high … EPA is saying it is one of the highest levels they have ever seen.” It was around 1,000 times higher than normal dioxin levels.
Even though local city health officials repeatedly urged responders to don special-fitted respirator masks during the cleanup efforts, they were often met with resistance. In one instance, the NYC Department of Health asked OSHA to enforce orders for workers to wear proper equipment. In response, OSHA said it was acting in an advisory role and would not issue fines which would only slow down operations. OSHA said that, instead, it would encourage workers to voluntarily comply with government regulations.
The new documents lead to a questioning of the federal government’s assurances over safe air quality in the wake of a similar disaster. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, who represents the ground zero area, said: “I'd be very leery about believing it unless I saw real evidence,” according to Pro Publica. “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.”
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