The collapse of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001 spewed an estimated 1.2 million tons of toxic and caustic dust into the air, enveloping thousands in a billowing cloud containing asbestos, fiberglass, lead and highly alkaline concrete, among other toxins; the dust settled thickly in the area around Ground Zero and seeped into apartments and offices. The fires at Ground Zero burned through December, releasing a constant stream of toxins into the air and into the lungs of thousands of rescue and cleanup workers.
Nearly five years later, on September 6, 2006, the New York Times published an editorial excoriating Congress and the Bush administration for providing far too little funding for the medical care desperately needed by the tens of thousands of people who worked in the rescue and cleanup effort: “Because they failed to wear or sometimes even obtain the proper breathing masks, and because they were misled by assurances that the toxic fumes were not dangerous, many are now sick or even dying.”
It’s a tragic fact that many of the 40,000 people who worked tirelessly and often selflessly in the aftermath of the attacks are already suffering tremendous health consequences; a recent major study (Environmental Health Perspectives, 9/6/06) found that 69 percent of almost 10,000 workers tested suffered from respiratory problems while working at or near Ground Zero, and symptoms persisted in 59 percent—problems like the dry, wracking “World Trade Center cough,” asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia.
Many of those who just lived, worked and went to school in the immediate vicinity are suffering as well. And it’s vital that the government take responsibility for its failures to protect those people and their health and that it provide sufficient resources to do so.
But it’s not just the government that failed the workers and the public with misleading assurances; the New York Times itself must share that burden. Shortly after the attacks and into the ensuing years, the Times—as both a New York paper and a national paper—failed to mount a functional degree of skepticism toward city and federal government pronouncements about the safety of the air and dust around Ground Zero. They by and large dismissed fears of residents and workers about their safety—even as troubling studies and voices of dissent cropped up in the public and private sectors, and in other media outlets.
“Safe to breathe”
The collapse of the World Trade Center towers and the fire that raged for the next three months brought about what one study called “the largest acute environmental disaster that ever has befallen New York City” (Environmental Health Perspectives, 5/04). The extraordinary pressure of the collapse pulverized not just the structure but computers, light fixtures, carpet, furniture, cables and wiring as well into a huge cloud of toxic dust of unprecedented mass. The burning of hundreds of thousands of gallons of underground fuel added more toxins to the brew.
On September 13, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that “the general public should be very reassured by initial sampling.” New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani told the New York Daily News (9/13/01), “The air is safe as far as we can tell, with respect to chemical and biological agents.” Three days later (9/16/01), an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) press release declared that “our tests show that it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York’s financial district.”
On September 18, another release quoted EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman as being “glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington D.C. that their air is safe to breathe.” The same day, the New York City Department of Health advised returning downtown residents that “there are no significant health risks to occupants in the affected area” due to asbestos contamination, and that the dust should be cleaned with “a wet rag or wet mop” and HEPA vacuum, with no dust mask necessary for protection (nyc.gov, 9/18/01).
The first media reports on the environmental effects of the attacks raised questions about asbestos (e.g., Daily News, Newsday, 9/13/01), after initial EPA tests detected the carcinogen in dust samples at and near the Trade Center site, and after health experts issued warnings. The New York Times (9/13/01) first addressed the potential environmental threats in an article about the myriad problems facing cleanup of the towers’ wreckage, citing Whitman’s reassurances “that the asbestos levels, too, were a concern only for rescue workers and work crews who will be involved day after day directly at the site, and not for residents nearby,” but also emphasizing the “deep uncertainty about what sorts of environmental hazards may be contained in the rubble.”
But as government officials quickly moved to calm fears about health hazards and get New York and Wall Street reopened, the media fell in line. With little testing completed of an extraordinarily complicated and unprecedented environmental situation, media mostly repeated official pronouncements, only sometimes with caveats and critics included. The trend held even in New York, where the focus on the environmental fallout was rightfully sharper. Starting September 14, the headlines took on a much more reassuring tone: “Monitors Say Health Risk From Smoke Is Very Small” (New York Times), “Tests: Dust Not a Danger Here” (Newsday).
A New York Post article told readers (9/18/01) that experts said the “best remedy” for their coughs and respiratory problems was simply “to drink lots of water.” The New York Times article headlined “Dust Is a Problem, but the Risk Seems Small” (9/18/01) passed along the official recommendation to clean apartments with mops and wet rags. The Daily News (9/20/01) featured an environmental consultant’s claim that, as the headline blared, “Asbestos Fears [Are] Exaggerated.”
Not everyone was so certain, though, and worrisome evidence soon began to emerge that all might not be safe. On September 28, as Giuliani was assuring New Yorkers that “the air quality is safe and acceptable” (CNN, 9/28/01), Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez broke the news that independent dust sample tests by the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project (NYELJP) had shown higher levels of asbestos than the EPA had reported, and that city officials were not enforcing regulations requiring workers to wear respirators at Ground Zero—a failure that would prove devastating to thousands of those workers.
The NYELJP’s tests found that fiberglass, a possible carcinogen, reached as high as 80 percent of the contents of the dust, and that asbestos levels reached 2 percent-5 percent in four of 10 samples. Gonzalez noted that “although no level of asbestos is considered safe from risk for cancer, federal regulations require that complicated abatement procedures be conducted whenever asbestos fibers are found at levels of 1 percent or more.”
A week later, Newsweek reported (10/5/01) that HP Environmental, a respected independent firm, had conducted its own tests with advanced equipment that was able to detect smaller particles than the EPA’s older equipment, and found high levels of tiny asbestos particles in the dust inside two office buildings near Ground Zero. The article noted that though the relative danger posed by the smaller particles was uncertain, some scientists argued that they were even more harmful than larger particles because of their ability to penetrate the lungs more deeply. And, like Gonzalez, Newsweek reminded readers that “there is no safe exposure to asbestos.”
These initial reports raised troubling questions about EPA and city pronouncements that should have prompted aggressive journalistic digging by other reporters. The Times, though, continued to follow the official line. On October 6, the Times ran a piece on the front of the Metro section by Susan Saulny and Andrew Revkin that, in a tone verging on derisive, described the “intense fear of contaminated air” that had “taken on a life of its own, despite repeated assurances by authorities, becoming one of the more unexpected and unmanageable side effects of the trade center disaster.” Though Gonzalez had just reported concrete findings that might have troubled rational New York City residents, the reporters failed to uncover any foundation for people’s fears besides “human nature and evolution,” along with statistics that “without a full explanation from the authorities . . . sound frightening.”
Saulny and Revkin explained to fearful readers that “asbestos levels in dust in the red zone have almost all been below the concentration at which the mineral is even technically defined to exist—1 percent.” This is both wrong and highly misleading. The EPA’s own tests at that point had shown that over a quarter of dust samples taken exceeded the 1 percent level (epa.gov, 10/3/01).
Moreover, the reason asbestos is only “technically defined to exist” at 1 percent is because at the time that the standard was established, that was simply the smallest amount that could be measured by the tests then available; it is not a health-based standard (epa.gov). In fact, as Gonzalez and Newsweek had pointed out, no level of asbestos has been determined to be safe. (Even though more accurate tests are now available, the EPA continues to use the older, less discriminating technology.)
The Times soon commissioned its own independent tests of the outdoor street level air near Ground Zero, and Revkin and Kirk Johnson (10/11/01) reported no toxins “in levels sufficient to raise long-term public health concern.” While it noted that workers at Ground Zero were still at risk, the Times emphasized that “health experts” said the “often emotional debate” had left residents “deeply misinformed about the relative risks of exposure,” and the paper declared that its research “suggests strongly that emotion and anxiety have elevated concerns about the air far beyond the levels shared by most scientists and public health experts.” The piece quoted several such experts and no critics or skeptics.
The Times also made a dismissive nod towards the Newsweek story by noting that, though “recent news reports” suggested that asbestos particles smaller than those detectable by the EPA (or the Times’ testing company) may be dangerous, “an overwhelming number” of studies found larger particles to be “far more dangerous”; the Times did not attempt to quantify the risk of those small particles. The piece concluded with these reassuring words from a chemistry professor: “This is a tough thing that people in New York are dealing with. But we’re talking here about a short-term, temporary problem.”
The debate had indeed left residents “deeply misinformed,” but the Times itself was playing a starring role in the spread of that misinformation, making broad-brush assurances based on testing that looked only at outdoor air samples and not dust, and dismissing or ignoring contradictory evidence.
Again, on October 16, Revkin reported that “for the moment, almost all of the independent research jibes with the core finding of federal, state and city health and environmental officials: that only people working for a prolonged period in the 16-acre attack site face a significant health risk, and then only if they are not wearing protective masks and clothing. Outside that zone, there is little chance of significant harm, they say.” Though he followed that assessment with the caveat that many scientists “say it is important to probe deeper,” he once again reassured readers that “over all, researchers have persistently found only a few samples outside the blocks directly adjacent to the trade center with asbestos amounts topping various safety standards.” Again he wrote that the minute particles found by HP Environ-mental “probably pose less of a health risk than longer fibers,” and failed to address the dangers of indoor dust.
The piece further misinformed readers that EPA tests had found “no signs of dioxins, PCBs or other toxic organic compounds” in the smoke rising from the Ground Zero fires; a correction was made over a week later (10/25/01) to note that “tests indeed detected dioxins and other toxic organic compounds, but in small amounts, nothing exceeding health standards.”
“No long-term health risks”
The day after the Times’ correction, though, the Daily News broke a story that directly contradicted it: The NYELJP, led by Joel Kupferman, had obtained through a FOIA request unpublished EPA test results that showed toxic substances like dioxins, benzene and PCBs were in fact being released into the air and ground around the trade center site, “sometimes at levels far exceeding federal standards.”
How did the Times react to the news? On November 2, it published a piece headlined “Workers and Residents Are Safe, Officials Say,” accompanied by a photo of Ground Zero workers with a caption reading, “Workers cleaning up debris at Ground Zero have to wear respirators and other protective gear, but officials say there are no long-term health risks.”
Reporter Diane Cardwell passed along a city environmental official’s startling claim “that although workers at the site were still required to wear respirators and other protective gear, the data suggest that even an unprotected worker would not experience long-term health risks from the levels of poisons that had been detected.” While she also quoted skeptical downtown representatives lower down in the piece, Cardwell made no mention of the EPA results unearthed by the NYELJP.
Times readers didn’t get a hint of the toxicity of the plume until nearly two weeks after the Daily News broke the story, buried deep at the end of an article (11/8/01) on safety at Ground Zero that focused almost entirely on physical, rather than chemical, hazards. The piece told readers that the plume from the site had “contained high mixtures, at times, of compounds like benzene,” but that OSHA found most workers had “little or no exposure to the chemical.” It noted that “part of the problem, particularly in the early weeks, was that many workers and firefighters did not wear proper respirators”—but it didn’t take that line of inquiry further, or explain that enforcement of safety at Ground Zero was the responsibility of the city and OSHA, not the workers.
Why, for example, did Giuliani fail to reclassify Ground Zero as a hazardous waste recovery and reconstruction site—where strict regulations would have to be enforced—rather than a rescue site when it became clear no more rescues would be made within days of the collapse? And why was respirator compliance extremely high at the Pentagon and at the Fresh Kills landfill, where Trade Center debris was taken, and so low at the Trade Center site (Barrett and Collins, Grand Illusion)?
NYELJP’s important contributions played a major role in breaking open and continuing the story of the environmental consequences of the World Trade Center collapse, but as of this writing, the only mentions of NYELJP’s work in the New York Times have been in two letters to the editor, one written by Kupferman himself (10/15/01).
In early 2002, a cluster of new evidence emerged signaling the true dangers of Trade Center dust and air, and the culpability of the government in keeping information from the public. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Andrew Schneider broke a major story (1/13/02) headlined “NY Officials Underestimate Danger; 1 in 10 People Exposed Could Be at Risk of Death, Researchers Say.” Schneider reported that top asbestos experts, again using more advanced technology than that used by the EPA, found nine times as much asbestos in the dust as the EPA reported detecting. The piece quoted one HP Environmental expert who argued that “to say that small fibers are not dangerous defies logic. In most of the autopsies on asbestos victims, the predominance of fibers we see are small, are under five microns”—the smallest size measured by the EPA.
Schneider broke another story (2/10/02) revealing that government tests conducted shortly after the collapse found that some of the World Trade Center dust was as caustic as drain cleaner, but that neither the EPA nor FEMA, both of which were informed of the results, ever released the findings. Schneider also wrote that, though the EPA continually reassured the public of its safety, the agency “pays little or no attention to indoor contamination”—where much of the danger had been found.
The Daily News’ Gonzalez (2/12/02) described failures reported in a Senate hearing held the previous day in Manhattan, writing that Whitman and other officials “glossed over many unknown potential health risks to residents and cleanup workers. . . . The EPA left the monitoring of indoor air and dust to local agencies. [But] no city agency supervised or monitored the cleanup of buildings in the area.” Two days later, the Daily News (2/14/02) reported that new independent research findings requested by the Department of Energy recorded “some of the highest air pollution levels ever studied,” and “sharply contradict[ed] reports from the federal Environmental Protection Agency that worrisome levels of metals and other pollutants in the air were mostly confined to the immediate vicinity of Ground Zero.”
But while the local Daily News and even a St. Louis paper were digging up hard facts about the dangers to residents and workers, the Times was mostly shrugging its shoulders. On February 8, under the ambivalent headline “With Uncertainty Filling the Air, 9/11 Health Risks Are Debated,” the Times’ Kirk Johnson described the quandary downtown residents faced about whether to move back into their apartments and how to clean them, and admiringly reported that “in the same energetic, impatient ways that have always shaped the city’s character, [New Yorkers] have simply gotten on with things.”
Johnson went on to give a he said/she said account of the contradictory testing and results up to that point. He did note the government’s failure to test indoor dust, but seemed largely uninterested in accountability, citing a Natural Resources Defense Council report that pointed to the lack of a single agency overseeing the environmental consequences but making no mention of the same report’s explicit condemnation of the Giuliani administration and OSHA (“The Environmental Impacts of the World Trade Center Attacks,” NRDC.org, 2/02).
The Times editorial page (2/22/02) weighed in next, remarking that “recent hearings and analyses of air quality . . . have produced some encouraging findings.” The editorial did find “distressing” the failure of any government agency to take responsibility for ensuring indoor spaces were properly cleaned, and urged the EPA and the city to “determine the scope of the [indoor pollution] and ensure a proper cleanup.” But the only news reporting in the Times on the “hearings and analyses” up to that point came in a one-paragraph “Metro Briefing” (2/12/02) on Sen. Hillary Clinton’s role in the hearings, so readers would likely have had no idea what the editorial was even referring to.
After the next hearing, the Daily News and Newsday ran articles (both 2/24/02) focusing on the accusations against the EPA; the Daily News told readers “Home Mopping Called Risky” in the subhead, and reported that officials at the hearing said cleanup “should only be done by licensed experts.” But the Times again focused (2/24/02) on “the confusion over the air quality,” and did not tell readers of the need for cleaning to be done by experts. It did note, far down in the piece, that one scientist testified that “ultrafine particles” of asbestos and other toxic substances were “considered to be more dangerous to human health than large particles”—something Times readers, having previously been reassured that the smaller particles were less dangerous, might have been surprised to read.
Some of the most damning evidence against the EPA—and, for the first time, against the White House as well—emerged from the EPA inspector general, who conducted an extensive evaluation of the agency’s response to the World Trade Center attacks, released two years after the events. Though the report (epa.gov, 8/21/03) praised the EPA’s efforts overall, it dropped two bombshells: It concluded that the EPA’s initial statements about public safety were not fully supported by its data, and it found that the White House Council on Environmental Quality edited EPA press releases to “add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones.”
The report revealed, for example, that when the EPA assured the public on September 18 that the air was safe to breathe, it had not even begun to receive results for tests of lead, dioxin, PAHs and PCBs. Moreover, “health-based benchmarks for short-term and acute exposures did not exist for pollutants of concern resulting from the collapse of the WTC,” including asbestos, nor for the unique combination of toxins and their possibly synergistic effects. In other words, the EPA was declaring toxin levels safe when it had no standards by which to do so. And even the non-health-based standard for asbestos was exceeded in over 25 percent of the dust samples the EPA tested before September 18—which was not reflected in the early press releases.
Perhaps even more shockingly, the report revealed that in the weeks immediately following September 11, no press releases could be issued from the EPA without clearance from the National Security Council, via the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The CEQ deleted instructions to the public to obtain professional asbestos cleaning for indoor spaces, and “discouraged” the EPA from discussing the “health risk to ‘sensitive populations.’”
“Competing considerations, such as national security concerns and the desire to reopen Wall Street, also played a role in EPA’s air quality statements,” concluded the report.
The inspector general compared a draft EPA release (9/16/01) with the revised release after CEQ input. One striking example of a change: “Recent samples of dust gathered by OSHA on Water Street show higher levels of asbestos in EPA tests” became:
The new samples confirm previous reports that ambient air quality meets OSHA standards and consequently is not a cause for public concern. New OSHA data also indicate that indoor air quality in downtown buildings will meet standards.
EPA has found variable asbestos levels in bulk debris and dust on the ground, but EPA continues to believe that there is no significant health risk to the general public in the coming days. Appropriate steps are being taken to clean up this dust and debris.
The CEQ added and modified other lines to make them more reassuring, and deleted the following sentence: “The concern raised by these samples would be for the workers at the cleanup site and for those workers who might be returning to their offices on or near Water Street on Monday, September 17, 2001.”
The Times was leaked a draft copy of the inspector general’s report in advance of publication; reporter Jennifer 8. Lee broke the story (8/9/03)—but remarkably, editors buried the exclusive on page 3 of the Metro section.
The story then lay untouched in the pages of the Times until the report was officially published, when the paper ran a short article (8/23/03) that led with the EPA’s defense and recapped the inspector general’s charges in a paragraph. The first real stab at deeper analysis didn’t come until September 7, in an article by Kirk Johnson under the headline “Uncertainty Lingers Over Air Pollution in Days After 9/11,” which mentioned the inspector general report but seemed to forget some of its main points.
Johnson called “unresolved” the question of whether there was “a standard of confidence about the environmental risks and unknowns that was scientifically or perhaps even morally appropriate under the circumstances,” but of the scientific or medical experts he cited, none suggested such uncertainty: Two said the EPA should not have made reassurances without supporting data, and one explained pressures that might have led to such premature reassurances.
Johnson wrote that “the cumulative evidence through the months of independent testing by academic researchers and private companies ultimately supported what [Whitman] had said.” Whitman had argued that all along she was only referring to asbestos in outdoor air and its long-term effects on the general, healthy public—not short-term or acute effects, not the air or dust at Ground Zero itself, or indoor air or dust, or sensitive populations, and not other pollutants; even looked at through this extraordinarily narrow lens, the inspector general concluded that the question of whether the air was safe to breathe “may not be settled for years to come.”
But virtually no one at the time looked at Whitman’s statement through that narrow lens, which the inspector general emphasized in her report. Nor would they have had reason to; as she wrote, “the statements issued by EPA in press releases throughout 2001 generally did not contain the above qualifications.”
The next day (9/8/03), the Times editorial page weighed in: “Our own sense is that much of the criticism is retrospective nitpicking of decisions made in the midst of a crisis, but it does seem clear that federal and local agencies could have better informed residents of any hazards they would face when they returned to work or live in the area.” To refer to criticism of EPA and White House actions that put people’s lives and health at risk as “nitpicking” seems a massive trivialization of the current ill health suffered by thousands as a direct result of taking the government’s assurances to heart, as well as of the government’s culpability in those illnesses.
“Breathing is believing”
The Times revisited the IG report over two months later (11/30/03), in a remarkably exculpatory analysis headlined “When Breathing Is Believing: New Yorkers Doubt EPA Credibility on Air Safety, but Truth Is Complex.” Johnson and Lee called the report “much more complex and moderate” than portrayed by others, and followed with arguments that seemed to have been pulled straight from the EPA’s formal response, published as an appendix to the report.
One example they gave was that the report “does not conclude that the EPA was wrong” in saying the air was safe to breathe, “but only that the scientific underpinning was inadequate, at that moment, for such a broad generalization.” The reporters also dismissed the White House’s influence as perhaps “not that meaningful,” given the EPA’s many other methods of communicating with the public aside from press releases, and since White House involvement in environmental communications was “standard procedure.”
The article also notes that “physicians say” that the “personal decision by many not to wear respirators . . . must be considered the prime factor” in the illnesses suffered by Ground Zero rescue workers. This shifting of responsibility onto the victims ignores the role of the government; later in the piece, the reporters mention that wearing respirators was “voluntary,” and that, though OSHA enforced regulations at the Pentagon cleanup site, in New York “OSHA was only in advisory mode.” No further exploration of why OSHA was in that mode, or who should have been enforcing regulations, ensued.
By 2004, even more evidence had accumulated, and the Times finally started to catch up to its local and distant competitors. The paper put reporter Anthony dePalma to the environmental beat, where he began to file the occasional longer and much more critical report on such subjects as the symptoms being reported, the difficulties workers faced getting compensation for missed work and medical bills, and the lengthy battle to get the city to clean up contaminated indoor spaces downtown (e.g., 5/13/04, 11/5/05, 4/14/06). (As late as July 27, 2004, though, the Times was still trying to reassure readers with sweeping headlines like “Study Shows Air From 9/11 Didn’t Inflate Cancer Risk”—which reflected none of the specificity or caveats reporter Revkin explained in the article that followed.)
The Times’ first serious, in-depth look at the issue of the respirators (6/5/06) was a dePalma article discussing a class-action lawsuit filed in 2004 against the government for its failure to enforce safety regulations at Ground Zero. In the lengthy front-page piece, dePalma reported that at times, “no more than one in five workers were in compliance” with rules requiring respirator use. He explained that the city was legally in charge of safety at Ground Zero, and that on September 20 it asked OSHA to take charge of distributing respirators—and OSHA controversially decided not to issue fines or citations for noncompliance to contractors. It was an important article—but it didn’t appear in the Times until nearly five years after the September 11 attacks, long after such reporting could have had an impact on enforcement of regulations and the health of the workers.
“Bending over backwards”
2004, as it happens, was the year of the Times’ half-hearted mea culpa (5/26/04) on its WMD reporting leading up to the Iraq War, which had helped bolster the Bush administration’s case for a pre-emptive war that has resulted thus far in the deaths of over 2,800 U.S. soldiers and an estimated 655,000 Iraqis (Lancet, 10/11/06). The Times’ note only admitted that the paper was “misled” and “taken in,” and executive editor Bill Keller told staff in an internal memo that the piece was “not an attempt to find a scapegoat or to blame reporters for not knowing then what we know now.”
No similar mea culpa has yet emerged from the Times about its WTC pollution reporting, though in both cases the Times played a key role in reinforcing false government claims that directly impacted the health and lives of thousands. And in neither case was the problem that the Times failed to predict the future. Rather, on each critical story, the Times abdicated the fundamental journalistic role of watchdog, failing to aggressively question government claims.
In the run-up to war, other journalists—like Knight Ridder’s Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, and the Associated Press’ Charles Handley—did manage to cut through administration propaganda (see Extra!, 3-4/06), just as in the aftermath of the WTC attacks, the Daily News’ Juan Gonzalez and St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Andrew Schneider managed to question government assurances, dig for more information and evaluate often complicated and confusing environmental findings and regulations.
Good journalism is not always easy to achieve in a corporate-controlled system; Gonzalez told the American Prospect (2/25/02) that though he had the advantage of an editor championing his reporting,
But sometimes self-censorship can be just as significant. The Times’ Revkin told American Journalism Review (1-2/03), “We were, I think, bending over backwards to be sure we were reporting a risk only if we knew it, whereas others, I feel rather strongly, were flipping it the other way.” Revkin cited the Daily News as an example. When asked how he thought the 9/11 health story would end, Revkin told AJR, “I think it’s going to fade away.” Unfortunately, the chronic health problems already measured among those exposed to Ground Zero pollution ensure that this story is going to be with us for years to come.
Please also see the sidebar to this article: Ground Zero’s Undocumented Victims