Ten Years Later: A Breath of Fresh Air?

September 9, 2011 | 5:03 pm
Francesca Grifo
Former contributor

Sunday marks the 10-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. In this time of tribute to the fallen, we also recognize the survivors. So I asked UCS public health expert Heidi Moline to look back on what happened that day, with a focus on those who are still dealing with major chronic illness that could have been prevented. Here’s what she wrote to me:

U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Jim Watson

“The collapse of the World Trade Center released nearly 2,000 tons of asbestos and hundreds of thousands of tons of concrete in the form of dust. In the decade following the attacks, thousands of rescue workers and New York residents have suffered lasting chronic illness, most notably lung disease.

“While we can only estimate the true extent of respiratory illness due to the air quality following the attacks, it is likely that many instances of chronic lung illness could have been prevented.

“Two days after September 11, 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assured the people of New York that the air around ground zero was safe to breathe. However, the EPA lacked authoritative scientific information on which to base these claims, and internal agency data conflicting with this reassuring public posture were ignored.

“Furthermore, in the aftermath of the disaster, all EPA press releases were required to be vetted by the White House. This blatant politicization of science and failure in federal transparency gave millions a false sense of security and later elicited mistrust in the EPA during the subsequent recovery.

“The EPA’s response following the events of September 11th illustrates the importance of maintaining scientific integrity during and following an emergency. In the wake of disasters, the public looks to the government for answers. These answers need to be honest and science-based.”

Ten years later, federal agencies are now in the process of developing scientific integrity policies that are aimed at preventing similar violations of science from occurring in the future. Though far from perfect, when fully implemented these policies will be a great step forward to ensure that the messages coming out of federal agencies will protect the health of the public.

As we mark this anniversary and I remember the smell of the air on that day in Manhattan, and now know what we were all breathing, it becomes ever more essential that we hold our federal agencies accountable. In August, the EPA released a draft of its scientific integrity policy, and over the past month nearly 25,000 UCS supporters commented on it. In addition, UCS staff have completed a line-by-line analysis of the policy along with detailed comments on what they got right and what can be improved.

For more information on the abuse of science at Ground Zero, see our A-Z on the issue.