Environmental health advocates in New York are warning the federal government that residents of lower Manhattan could face serious health risks, because their apartments were never properly cleaned to remove contaminants after the World Trade Center collapse.
After the twin towers fell, a thick dust blew into nearby buildings, and blanketed the surfaces inside. A chalky, chemical smell lingered for months throughout lower Manhattan.
One week after the attacks, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, told New Yorkers that the air was safe to breathe.
The EPA has been harshly criticized in recent months for allegedly misleading New Yorkers about the safety of the air, which according to internal government reports, was found to contain levels of toxins and carcinogens that exceeded federal safety limits, one month after the collapse.
Safety advocates say the majority of the buildings around Ground Zero, as the former World Trade Center site is known, have still not been properly cleaned to remove asbestos.
New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler is now calling on the EPA to conduct a full cleanup of all buildings in the areas of lower Manhattan.
"I don't want the historians, 30 years from now, to write that more people died because of the malfeasance of the United States government, by not cleaning up the environment and letting people think they were living in safe environments, than died at the hands of the terrorists themselves," he said.
A 100-page report released by the EPA's Office of the Inspector General in August found many flaws in the agency's response, including the way the EPA reported that the air was safe, before conducting enough tests to reach that determination.
EPA officials have acknowledged that some mistakes were made, but say that the chaotic atmosphere following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was not accounted for in the report.
Marjorie Clarke is a professor of urban environmental health at Lehman College. She says the EPA's response was too little, too late.
"It's been shown already that EPA's cleanup, which they started about a year late, only addressed about one-fifth of the apartments, none of the businesses, none of the schools, none of that was covered at all," she said. "So, the vast majority of apartments downtown have been cleaned only by the people themselves, giving risks to themselves, by the way."
Health experts say repeated exposure to asbestos and toxins can lead to cancer. Hundreds of firefighters who responded to the scene and worked during the recovery efforts afterward have since taken medical leave because of respiratory ailments. Some studies have also found an increase in asthma cases among children in the downtown area.