US EPA seeks to reassure public over media coverage of “health risks” from 11 September attacks

The US Environmental Protection Agency has criticised media claims that “internal government reports” which reveal that toxic chemicals and metals are being released into the environment around lower Manhattan, sometimes at levels far exceeding federal limits, saying they “grossly mischaracterised the situation”.

The New York Daily News published details of EPA documents, comprising hundreds of pages of daily monitoring reports, which it says reveal that the release of toxic chemicals from the collapse of the twin towers and the subsequent subterranean fires has been far more extensive than first believed. Until now, public attention has focused largely on the potential hazards of asbestos in the air (see related story), but the 26 October news report has reawakened fears over contamination from benezene, dioxins, lead and sulphur dioxide, amongst other contaminants.

The newspaper claims that the EPA data records that benzene continues to be released into the air in plumes from fires, which are still burning, at relatively high levels. It says that on 11 October benezene levels around Ground Zero were exceeded by 58 times the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) permissible exposure limits for workers over an eight-hour day of one part per million. Levels were also up to 42 times the permissible exposure limit on 2 October and 11 October, the newspaper says.

Other New York Daily News’ claims include that:

  • water discharged into the Hudson River from a sewer pipe in lower Manhattan one week after the attacks contained dioxin levels more than five times higher than any previously recorded in New York Harbour by the state Department of Environmental Conservation;
  • tests of water discharged into the Hudson showed chromium, copper, lead and zinc at levels “elevated to several orders of magnitude above ambient water-quality criteria for most metals”;
  • on numerous days, sulphur dioxide readings at six sites in lower Manhattan “have been far higher than the EPA’s ambient air quality standards” and that on 18 September levels were so high that they were above the EPA’s standard for a classification of “hazardous”; and
  • lead levels at one test site in lower Manhattan on 23 September registered nearly three times the EPA standard for ambient air quality.

However, spokesperson for the EPA in the New York area, Mary Mears, told edie that the New York Daily News article “grossly mischaracterised the situation at the World Trade Center,” and that the information on elevated levels of benzene and other contaminants was already available “in nearly all of our daily summaries”. For example, 11 October’s entry states that “benzene was detected above the OSHA limit in the smoke plume of the debris pile, but not at a location outside the perimeter of ground zero”. “EPA has taken thousands of samples, and a relative few of these samples have shown elevated levels of chemicals or other harmful substances,” she said, adding that “most of the more elevated readings were taken right near or at Ground Zero, where workers are being told to wear respirators as a precaution”.

“The benzene levels reported in the Daily News were taken as close to the

source of the fire as we could get, literally taking readings from the ground where the smoke was at it’s most concentrated,” Mears said. “Readings taken at

breathing level – about five feet – were dramatically lower and most within the OSHA standards and levels taken a block away showed no detectable signs of benzene.”

“As for the elevated levels of contaminants found in the Hudson, right after the attacks heavy rain caused run-off from Ground Zero to enter the river,” she continued. “Had the discharge have continued we would have been concerned but our risk assessors concluded that the levels of pollutants found didn’t pose a threat to either human health or aquatic life.”

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