The Air Down There

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, 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

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

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