One week after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. government told New Yorkers that the air near the collapsed World Trade Center was "safe to breathe." But two years later, the accuracy of that message is under increasing scrutiny.
When the World Trade Center collapsed, a thick layer of dust coated nearby streets, apartments and offices. People who had escaped the disaster were covered with the gray ash from the debris.
Some lawmakers, residents and rescue workers raised concerns about possible contaminants in the area.
In an effort to reassure the public, Christie Whitman, the director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at the time, announced that the air in lower Manhattan was "safe to breathe."
But last month, the EPA's inspector general released a critical report charging that the agency "did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement." It also accused the White House Council on Environmental Quality of persuading the EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones.
U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who represents lower Manhattan, says it is time for the federal government to accept responsibility. "We all know, some of us have been saying it for two years, now the inspector general of the EPA has said that the federal government lied to us," said the congressman. "They bear some responsibility for the fire fighters and cops and other first responders who have gotten sick because proper precautions were not taken because they were given false assurances."
Former EPA director Whitman, who resigned in June, stands by her announcement. In an interview with The New York Times, she said that allowing people to return to lower Manhattan one week after the attacks was based on knowledge available at the time.
The federal, state and city governments did test the air near the site. But they did little testing indoors where contaminants may have lodged in carpets and air ventilation systems.
The EPA has offered to clean apartments near Ground Zero but not in surrounding neighborhoods.
Critics continue to call on the federal government to systematically test for the spread of contaminants such as asbestos, lead, zinc, mercury, fine glass and concrete particles beyond the World Trade Center site.
They want the government to take over the cleanup of all indoor spaces and offices from property owners.
Dr. Stephen Levin, the director of the Mount Sinai Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine in New York, has studied the health effects of the World Trade Center collapse. Speaking at a recent panel discussion on the effects, he said if the indoor pollutants are not cleaned up, they will continue to spread and pose a health risk.
"The issue of cleaning up now is partly to stop the exposures, which will be ongoing, the consequences of which we really have a difficult time predicting because it's hard to predict dose," he said, referring to the level of pollutants. "Dose makes the poison, the greater the dose the greater the risk the greater the severity of the disease."
Dr. Levin's team at Mount Sinai hospital screened about 6,000 rescue workers who were exposed to the debris after the attack. He found that most experienced respiratory problems and more than half have had psychological distress.
"The striking thing about this is how persistent these problems have been. We began our examinations 10 months after people began their exposures and they continued to experience these respiratory and psychological difficulties," said Dr. Levin. Now, a federally funded, $20 million inquiry is under way to test the long-term health effects on the thousands of people who were exposed to fire and smoke on September 11. The project relies on volunteers and is to be one of the biggest public health investigations in history.
Dr. Levin says he has found that many of the residents and workers who returned to lower Manhattan while smoke and dust filled the air have suffered some health consequences.
He believes that health officials lost sight of a basic principle of public healt: "Always operate with what we call the precautionary principle. When you do not know, you are cautious and assume that there is hazard. Now that is a basic public health point and I think we failed to apply [it] in this instance."
Two years after the tragedy, Dr. Levin says he hopes that officials will learn from the September 11 attacks and assume the worst in testing and cleaning up future environmental disasters.