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How the Feds Downplayed Ground Zero Health Risks

New documents show federal officials concealed information about 9/11 health risks that the public had a right to know.

| Fri Sep. 9, 2011 5:35 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the ProPublica website. It was co-published with the Guardian.

In the dark and uncertain days after Sept. 11, 2001, the sight of thousands of shaken New Yorkers returning to their apartments, offices and schools in Lower Manhattan seemed to signal a larger return to normalcy.

Now new documents have emerged showing that federal officials in Washington and New York went further than was previously known to downplay concerns about health risks, misrepresenting or concealing information that ultimately might have protected thousands of people from the contaminated air at ground zero.

In one instance, a warning that people should not report to work on a busy thoroughfare in the financial district—Water Street—was rewritten and workers instead were urged to return to their offices as soon as the financial district opened on Sept. 17. In another, federal officials declared that testing showed the area was safe when sampling of the air and dust—which ultimately found very high levels of toxic chemicals—had barely begun.

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The documents do not reveal how—or whether—federal officials explicitly weighed the competing goals of ensuring New Yorkers' safety and projecting an image of a city and nation unbowed. But taken as a whole, the records—which include email messages from the White House's Council on Environmental Quality to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as interagency correspondence—give the most detailed account yet of how officials kept potentially disturbing data about health risks from the public.

Last year, Congress approved $4.3 billion to treat and compensate people with health issues related to exposure to ground zero dust.

Last year, Congress approved $4.3 billion to treat and compensate people with health issues related to exposure to ground zero dust.

"The misleading communications by civic leaders and their failure to insist on respiratory protection in the days, weeks and months after the initial rescue operation ended undoubtedly contributed and will continue to contribute to sickness in the rescue and recovery workers and in the citizens of Lower Manhattan," said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, chairman of the Department of Community and Preventative Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Mount Sinai has screened more than 25,000 ground zero responders for illnesses suspected of being related to the dust and treated many of them.

In response to questions about the way the disaster was handled, the EPA issued this statement: "The federal response to 9/11 has been thoroughly examined, including by EPA's own Inspector General. What is clear is that dedicated EPA staff worked tirelessly under nearly impossible conditions to respond to an unprecedented disaster." The statement goes on to note that the events of 9/11 tested the agency in many ways "and it is clear that some things could have been done better. Our focus every day since 9/11 has been on working to improve and expand our capacity to respond to emergencies."

As the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, questions continue to arise over the way government agencies assessed risks at ground zero and communicated what they knew to the public. In some respects, the documents examined by ProPublica, which were obtained through Freedom of Information requests filed by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), a labor union health group, expand upon what's come out before about the White House's role in shaping the information about ground zero contamination.

In 2003, the EPA Inspector General issued a scathing report outlining how the agency recast some of its public communications at the behest of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, a branch of the Executive Office of the President. The report concluded that the White House had at least indirectly influenced the wording of some statements by removing cautionary language about air safety downtown. It also found that the EPA had gone beyond what it knew in making general statements about the air in the first weeks after the attacks. In particular, the report harshly criticized Christine Todd Whitman, the EPA administrator in 2001, for telling people in New York that the "air is safe to breathe" before she had the facts to back it up.

Whitman declined to comment on the newly released documents. But in 2007, she strongly defended her agency before a congressional committee investigating the 9/11 response.

"It's utterly false then for EPA critics to assert that I or others at the agency set about to mislead New Yorkers and rescue workers," Whitman told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, whose chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., represents the area around ground zero. "Every statement I made was based on what experts, who had a great deal of experience in these things, conveyed to me,"

At the same hearing, Samuel Thernstrom, the associate director of communications for the environmental council, defended his role in coordinating the flow of information about ground zero, saying his goal had been simply "to help ensure that EPA's statements were as clear and accurate as possible."

But the new records, some of which were made available to the New York labor group as recently as this summer, depict an administration more set on projecting confidence and protecting itself against political attacks.

In an email dated Sept. 20, for example, John Henshaw, OSHA's chief administrator, said he had received a phone call from Thernstrom warning that several senators were asking questions about how OSHA was cooperating with the EPA at ground zero. In response, Henshaw directed his staff to gather details deflecting such concerns.

"I would like to have the information at hand before any inquiries come in, to nip any criticism in the bud," Henshaw wrote. "They have a history of taking pot shots at us and if we can respond quickly, in a positive, strong, well thought out way, we may take some wind out of there (cq) sails."

In several instances, the documents show, officials offered assurances about air quality before they even had test results or downplayed the degree of the contamination found.

Early on Sept. 13, a day and a half after the World Trade Center towers collapsed, Thernstrom called OSHA's New York office to say Whitman was on her way to the city to talk to reporters about the agency's air testing "since all monitoring reports have been so positive thus far," according to an OSHA email.

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