The Air Down There


| February 15, 2002


The Air Down There

More than five months after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, as many as 6,000 workers still enter the Ground Zero site daily to clean up the remains of fallen buildings. But within those remains, reports Todd Bates of Poynter.org, is an enormous environmental and health risk that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the news media have downplayed to the public.

Before the north tower of the WTC collapsed, the building reportedly contained 300 to 400 tons of friable asbestos. As a result, the collapse of the towers created an enormous cloud of asbestos-tainted dust and pollutants that some speculate could last for years -- even decades. While it takes approximately 15 to 40 years to see asbestos-related health effects such as lung cancer, more than 4,000 WTC rescue workers already have acquired a persistent 'World Trade Center cough,' according to news reports.

While the EPA uses high-powered vacuums and an indoor wash station to rid cleanup workers of the dust, that doesn't account for the people who work in buildings around Ground Zero. Some of the air intakes of lower Manhattan's buildings were not shut down after the towers' collapse, according to Bates. Those buildings are now contaminated with asbestos lodged between the ceiling and the floor, where the air intakes are located.

Further complicating the environmental and health debate is some 1.5 million tons of steel scrap that has been sold to companies in India and Asia. According to Nityanand Jayaraman and Kenny Bruno of CorpWatch, more than 30,000 tons of scrap -- possibly contaminated with asbestos, PCBs, cadmium and mercury -- already have been exported to India, where workers wearing no protection have unloaded the steel.

Steel scrap is commonly contaminated, and the health risks from the WTC scrap may not be the same level of toxicity that is at Ground Zero. But there are no safe levels of exposure to cancer-causing agents like asbestos and PCBs, say Jayaraman and Bruno, and once ingested or inhaled, carcinogens tend to build up in the body. Furthermore, the burden of preventing toxic waste from being imported into the country has fallen to India, because the United States has refused to sign the Basel Convention -- a treaty that prohibits developing countries from exporting hazardous material to industrializing nations.
--Kate Garsombke