NRDC: World Trade Center Attacks Created Environmental Emergency

Feb. 20, 2002
The first independent assessment of the environmental response to the World Trade Center disaster offers a dozen recommendations that would help to\r\navoid the environmental missteps that occurred in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.

In the first independent assessment of the environmental response to the World Trade Center disaster, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) offers a dozen recommendations that would help to avoid the environmental missteps that occurred in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.

"Although this crisis brought out the best in New Yorkers, we must do better in overall coordination in any future environmental emergency," said Eric A. Goldstein, NRDC senior attorney and a co-author of the report, "Environmental Impacts of the World Trade Center Attacks."

"The good news here," he continued, "is that outdoor air quality in lower Manhattan is essentially again at pre-attack levels."

According to the report:

  • The terror attacks on the World Trade Center constituted an unprecedented environmental assault for Lower Manhattan. At least 10,000 New Yorkers have suffered short-term health ailments from Trade Center-generated air contaminants.
  • Other than isolated outdoor hotspots, the most worrisome air pollution problem now facing Lower Manhattan involves indoor pollution threats in some residences and offices that received high doses of debris and dust and whose buildings were not properly cleaned. The extent of the remaining indoor pollution is one that is manageable in scope.
  • The overall government response to the environmental health challenges presented by Sept. 11th fell short in several key areas. The report complains of gaps in coordination and leadership; difficulties in communicating environmental information to the public; occupational safety shortcomings at Ground Zero; and problems assisting Lower Manhattan residents on environmental safety and clean-up. Of the more than nine city, state and federal agencies involved in aspects of the environmental health response to the Sept. 11th attacks, the performance of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYDEP) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) "were particularly disappointing."

The report offers a comprehensive list of recommendations, including:

  • OSHA, along with appropriate state and city agencies, should immediately undertake stringent enforcement of workplace safety standards for workers at Ground Zero and workers involved in clean up of dust- or debris-filled offices or residences in the vicinity of the Trade Center site.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the NYDEP and other relevant agencies should immediately create a joint task force to address remaining indoor air problems in Lower Manhattan residences and office buildings.
  • Federal, state and city agencies should act without delay to require the use of low sulfur fuel for diesel trucks and equipment operating in connection with Trade Center recovery, clean-up and rebuilding operations.
  • The federal government should provide additional funding to assist in the completion of recently initiated health studies of the environmental impacts of the Sept. 11th attacks on workers and residents of Lower Manhattan.
  • The federal government should provide funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assist in the establishment of a comprehensive health registry for workers, school children and residents in the Ground Zero vicinity who may have been impacted by the attacks on the World Trade Center.
  • New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg should officially designate the NYDEP to lead and coordinate the response of various government agencies to future environmental emergencies in New York City.
  • Bloomberg and the New York City Council should enact legislation creating a New York City Committee of Environmental Science and Health Advisors to work, in conjunction with the Board of Health, assisting city officials in evaluating information and communicating it to the public during future environmental health emergencies.
  • Bloomberg and the New York City Council should commission an independent assessment of the response of government agencies to the environmental health challenges presented by the Sept. 11th attacks.
  • Congress should enact S.1621 to establish a permanent health monitoring system at disaster sites.
  • EPA should initiate a review of existing national ambient air quality standards with the aim of revising particulate matter standards to account for high-intensity, short-term pollution bursts and of reviewing whether new standards for other pollutants discharged on Sept. 11th are warranted.
  • EPA, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the NYDEP should review New York City''s entire air quality monitoring network with the aim of adding stationary and mobile monitors to the existing system, so as to provide comprehensive monitoring information in future environmental emergencies.
  • The U.S. Congress, the New York State Legislature and EPA should develop and advance legislative proposals to minimize the amount of toxic substances that are used in office products and consumer goods.

The New York City Office of Emergency Management, which coordinated the city''s overall response to the crisis, appeared not to place local environmental effects as high on its priority list as other challenges, according to the study. And although the NYDEP has a broad mandate for dealing with environmental emergencies, the report said the agency "did not rise to the challenges posed by Sept. 11th" or fully exercise its authority.

First responders - firefighters, police, and construction workers - have faced the greatest health risks from the contaminated air, the study found. And in too many cases they have been working without the proper respiratory equipment.

The peer-reviewed study, available at, was researched and written by Megan D. Nordgren, Eric A. Goldstein and Mark A. Izeman. It cautions that a definitive analysis cannot be done until the completion of long-term studies such as those now underway at Columbia University School of Public Health, Mt. Sinai School of Environmental Medicine and the New York University School of Medicine. NRDC plans to release another report in September 2002.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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