The attacks of September the 11th, 2001, on the World Trade Centre in New York have had global implications. The impact of the attacks has manifested itself as the ongoing ‘war against terrorism’. The Global impact of 9/11 though, has, to some extent, hidden the very real local impact of the attacks.
Try for a moment to convert those crumbling towers into their constituent parts – hundreds of tons of asbestos were pulverized and released into the air; tens of thousands of fluorescent lightbulbs were smashed, each containing mercury; 50,000 computers ,each of which contained four to twelve pounds of lead, were destroyed; as were smoke detectors containing americium 241. In addition, there were record levels of dioxin, PCBs [Polychlorinated Biphenyls], and other contaminants released as the rubble of the WTC continued to burn, over several months. Dr. Marjorie Clarke, an environmental scientist from Hunter College at the City University of New York, reported to a NY City Council hearing that the destruction of a total of seven buildings in the attacks &ldquoproduced uncontrolled emissions equivalent to dozens of asbestos factories, incinerators and crematoria – as well as a volcano”. A visual clue to the environmental disaster is provided by the accompanying photo, taken by NASA from a height of 250 miles – the dark plume shown in the photo represent more than the destruction of the buildings, but also a real and ongoing threat to the health of citizens of New York.
In the days following the attack a number of reassuring press statements were released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal body responsible for monitoring air and water quality, including the September 18th statement by EPA Administrator Christie Whitman in which she said: &ldquoGiven the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C. that their air is safe to breath and their water is safe to drink”.
Two years later, in August 2003, the EPA's Inspector General produced a report that confirmed what many people had suspected – that information coming from the EPA had first been given a reassuring spin in conjunction with the ‘white house council on environmental quality, and that these reassurances were not based on scientific fact. The desire to get Wall Street and financial markets reopened quickly played a part in downplaying public health risks.
Jenna Orkin, of the World Trade Center Environmental Organization, and one of twelve current plaintiffs in a potential class action law suit against the EPA, lives in Brooklyn, and was suspicious from the start about the reassuring statements. &ldquoThe air smelled awful. The fires burned or smoldered for over three months, the different temperatures resulting in the release of different toxic substances. For a while the air had the alkalinity of drain cleaner. I didn’t trust the official story and didn’t want my son going back to school in Stuyvesant (four blocks from the WTC) – she says – but for a long time, it was impossible to find data with which to make a case to my son and ex-husband. The New York Environmental Law and Justice Project as well as some scientists and members of the public told the truth at City Council or State Assembly hearings, but because the government officials insisted on testifying first, the more truthful testimony didn’t come out until after the press had left”.
It took a full three months before Orkin had amassed enough data, as a private citizen, to convince both her son and ex-husband that the former should stay away from his school. Three months during which the fires continued to burn, releasing different toxins into the air. The air that ordinary citizens, like her son, were breathing.
&ldquoSeveral weeks after the disaster – Orkin continues – a mile north of Ground Zero, Dr. Thomas Cahill of the University of California at Davis found very- and ultra-fine particulates that were the highest he’d ever seen in the course of taking 7000 samples around the world, including at the burning Kuwaiti oil fields. The EPA itself found record levels of dioxin several months after the disaster”.
The World Trade Center Environmental Organization, of which Orkin is a member, are not alone in campaigning for a more comprehensive response to the environmental threats posed by 9/11. A number of groups such as the world trade center residents’ coalition, 9/11 environmental action and the New York committee on occupational safety and health have been working tirelessly (in many cases without recompense) to highlight the issue, and to force the Government to address the problems caused by the attacks.