Statement of  Marjorie J. Clarke, Ph.D.



State Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation

Public hearing on health matters resulting from the 9/11 WTC attacks

                     November 26, 2001 (amended Dec. 9, 2001 and January 7, 2002)


My name is Marjorie J. Clarke, Ph.D. I'm a Scientist in Residence at Lehman College, and an adjunct professor at Hunter College, City University of New York.  I was the Department of Sanitation's specialist on emissions from incinerators in the 1980s, the author of a book and numerous publications on the subject, and I recently served on a National Academy of Sciences committee on Health Effects of Waste Incineration, co-authoring the NRC publication by that name.


I thank the Environmental Conservation Committee for having this hearing on the health impacts on lower Manhattan due to the World Trade Center collapses, and hope that the committee will write legislation to ensure that the public health will be protected should any incident occur in the future.


There are several issues of importance to and lessons to be learned by New York State in the way the environmental agencies have handled air quality issues in lower Manhattan since Sept. 11. 


First, I concur with the Ground Zero Task Force, that there needs to be a Cleanup Oversight Agency.  There was a long delay before the agencies even began to talk with one another about sampling of air quality and accumulated dust.  I heard from a high level policy official at City DEP that it took 2 weeks for discussions to start between DEP and EPA. When did DEC begin to coordinate with these other agencies?


Second, there has been a "soup" of air pollutants in the downtown air, constantly being generated by fires that continue to burn without serious attempts to suffocate them, and by wind kicking up the dust that is wetted, but never collected and segregated.


There are a few types of air quality standards --

1.     ambient air quality - mostly irritants (SO2, NOx, CO, O3, particulates) from cars,

2.     occupational exposures (a wide range of pollutants, 8-hour/day exposure), and

3.     emissions from point and non-point sources (as measured in the stack or tailpipe).

4.     There are just a few standards for hazardous air pollutants, which cause health effects with far lower doses (ppm, ppb) than the criteria air pollutants for which there are ambient air quality standards.  Most toxic and carcinogenic air pollutants are not regulated under "NESHAPS".  This needs to be rectified soon, before we face something like this again.


The shortcoming of ALL these types of standards is that they were calculated by considering the effect on human health and the environment (i.e., the health of ecosystems) of only one pollutant at a time.  If the air contains two, or five, or five hundred discrete organics, heavy metals, acids, each of which has its own toxic and carcinogenic properties, but every pollutant is below the individual standard levels, then the government points to that and says that the air is safe.  But is it?  The government hasn't written standards for combinations of pollutants, so it considers the air to be safe if all standards, as currently written, are met.  It's common sense that elevated levels of five pollutants is worse than one.  It's also common sense that when there are widespread complaints of symptoms ranging from headaches and coughing to new onset asthma in marathon runners, and when everyone who entered into areas a half mile away and more from Ground Zero could smell the pollution, the air has not been "safe" for everyone.  The additive effects of multiple pollutants need to be considered in assessing evacuation zones, public and health measures.  Furthermore, two or more pollutants can interact with one another and produce impacts that are significantly more than the additive effects.  Research has shown that inhalation of both asbestos and cigarette smoke produces several times the effect of either one alone.  When 1 + 1 + 1 does not equal three, but equals 30, this is called synergy.  The Mt. Sinai Environmental Sciences Laboratory, which pioneered research into the health effects of asbestos, has found that those exposed to asbestos and who smoke, have not twice but 80 to 90 times the probability of suffering from asbestos-related diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis.  Since the WTC is actually a brand new, combination type of air pollution source (i.e., crematorium, solid waste incinerator, asbestos factory and volcano), and there are many toxic, carcinogenic and irritating pollutants, standards need to be rewritten to assess the impacts of synergy - to protect the public health. 


All three environmental agencies, including DEC, stated that nothing is wrong with the air at the City Club's forum.  Their basis is that each individual pollutant is below action or standard levels "most" of the time.  But it is clear that a large number of pollutants are significantly elevated above background levels.  I received an email from Dr. David Cleverly, dioxin expert at USEPA, that dioxin had been 50 times normal background levels, but not as high as actionable levels most of the time.  Dioxin is a family of 210 discrete man-made chemicals that are some of the most carcinogenic and toxic chemicals known.  Dioxin is the contaminant of Agent Orange that was responsible for birth defects across Vietnam after that war ended.  Dioxin adheres very tightly to particulate matter in incinerators, and is stored in fatty tissues in human beings for long periods of time.  Dioxins are created in large quantities in poorly designed, uncontrolled incinerators, when products such as paper, cardboard, wood are incompletely burned with such substances as PVC plastic, benzene, and other chlorinated ring structures.  The Trade Center was full of fuel for such incomplete combustion.  The optimal temperatures for formation of dioxin are roughly between 400 to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit.  European dioxin emission standards from an incinerator with a small stack (as compared with the area of Ground Zero) are 0.1 nanograms (billionths of a gram) Toxic Equivalents per cubic meter of emission.  But EPA's website says that "most of the air samples taken in areas surrounding the work zone and analyzed for dioxin have been below EPA's screening level, which is set to protect against significantly increased risks of cancer and other adverse health effects. The screening level is based on an assumption of continuous exposure for a year to an average concentration of 0.16 nanograms per cubic meter (ng/m3)", which is 60% higher than incinerator emission standards at the stack exit in several European countries.  Twelve days after the attack, ambient concentrations of dioxin were 0.139 ng/m3 at Church and Dey just east of the site,  and at Broadway and Liberty, levels were at the .01 level.  No measurements were taken northeast of the site, which would be downwind most often.  The temperatures of the debris have also continued to be sufficient to vaporize many toxic heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, mercury, to mention just a few of the many that have surely been emitted in large quantities from this uncontrolled incinerator.  I, myself, could smell the metals in the air while I was at the Municipal Building for a meeting in early October.  My colleague, and medical waste incinerator expert who wrote the City’s Medical waste management plan in 1991, Wally Jordan of Waste Tech, remarked that he smelled chlorinated organics when he went to the site around that time.  From what I have heard, the temperature of the pile has been within this temperature range for much of the time since 9/1l, so the emissions from these fires could easily be similar to a number of uncontrolled incinerators..  Only recently did EPA put any dioxin data at all on its website, and there is no mention of background or action levels for dioxin or any other pollutant.  Many heavy metals have not been listed on the websites.  Background levels refer to what is loosely considered to be "normal" levels of any given pollutant in the atmosphere.  But what does it mean if dioxin plus hundreds of discrete substances including asbestos and several other toxic and/or carcinogenic organic compounds, heavy metals, silica, acids and other gases and particulate matter are elevated, or even many times background levels, and are borderline actionable?  Doesn't it seem likely that breathing air in which many toxic or carcinogenic pollutants are borderline actionable is worse for public health than breathing air in which only one pollutant is borderline?  Yet standards assume the impact on human health is from only one pollutant.  Is it protective of public health to look at each pollutant one at a time, ignoring the additive effects of inhaling each of several pollutants?  Can we assume that the impacts on human health is only the additive effect of the concentrations of each pollutant, or might there be synergistic interactions between some of these compounds that increase the impacts further?  Since ambient air standards are for individual pollutants, it is imperative that research be done to assess the impacts on public health of combinations of pollutants.  Standards need to be rewritten as well to assess the impacts of synergy.  The environmental agencies at all levels need to become more expert in evaluating the health and environmental effects of various mixtures of pollutants.  Based on this information DEC should rewrite its air quality standards to assess the impacts of various combinations of pollutants so that we will be ready next time to know how to protect the public health.


Fourth, this is a new type of air pollution source, with characteristics of a crematorium, a solid waste incinerator, an asbestos factory, and even an ash-spewing volcano.  No emissions standards exist for this type of source, though I am familiar with emissions standards for incinerators.  Many of us remember the bitter battles between Brooklyn residents and the City over the Brooklyn Navy Yard plant.  The emissions from this plant would have been controlled well over 90% for most pollutants, and yet we have an incinerator downtown which continues to burn totally uncontrolled.  The size of the World Trade Center "plant" has been many times the size of any incinerator, two and a half months have passed, and we have heard very little about a serious attempt to contain the emissions from the site and put out the fires.  Why aren't we discussing erecting a temporary structure (dome) over the site, and installing incinerator emissions controls to clean the air inside the dome?  Initially, while recovery operations are briefly suspended, the fires could be starved by injecting nitrogen or suffocating the fires in some other way.  


Fifth, entrainment of pollutant-laden fine dust is also occurring, as we heard, by loading debris into trucks and barges.  There are standards for reducing entrainment of incinerator ash.  These involve spraying water and containment in leak-proof, covered trucks.  Why aren't we enforcing those standards?  Is it because this is not an incinerator?  Shouldn't common sense dictate that the closest standards that exist be the ones to be followed in such a case?  We heard that “guys with guns” enforce covering of trucks – Now.  But I had heard from people who lived in the area, that the military had been enforcing the opposite in the first weeks, so that they could check the trucks’ contents.  That the trucks might be covered now does not negate the exposure to residents and workers of pollutants that were emitted earlier.


Sixth, air quality data has been selectively shared with the public, leaving the public mistrustful.  Further, the agencies waited far too long to begin adding monitors to the area.  We can only imagine the levels of dioxin, asbestos, heavy metals, acids, other organics, silica, etc. that was in the air while people were running from the area.  We shouldn’t ignore this impact on their health.  On EPA’s website, it initially listed only asbestos in air, asbestos in dust and a gross measure of particulate matter in air.  After several weeks passed, EPA added PCB and lead.  After another few weeks, a few days' individual samples of dioxin were presented.  All told, this is maybe 20 pages of information. But in a televised public forum (City Club forum held October 26), EPA said that all of its data was online.  I subsequently learned that EPA had 900 pages of data, including a list of heavy metals, dioxins and furans, acid gases, as well as those items listed.  But EPA has demanded that the Manhattan Borough President and City Council must file Freedom of Information requests for it or else come to the repository and look at it.  I asked for an electronic copy.  I was told I was the first one to ask for it, and was told that it would not be possible to email me the data.  How could this be, since the data surely exist on someone's computer?  As far as I know, the Borough President's office still has not received the data and it has been weeks since the local EPA intergovernmental rep has known the Borough President wanted the data.  It is just this kind of secretive behavior that invites people who do go down to view the full datasets, to quote data selectively.  If the data were freely available in a spreadsheet, then academic, environmental, and community institutions could have already started studies.  Those who want to conduct analyses are still unable to do so.  Considering what is available online, the datasets appear to be thin, with many pollutants missing from the database and with only a few dates sampled for some pollutants.


Where was DEC while thousands of New York City residents were exposed to air pollutants from the WTC collapses?  According to its website, the DEC has not done anything to expand its sampling and analysis of the air to supplement City DEP or USEPA's sampling.  The DEC website shows only the current day's data, when they could have made data from 9/11 onwards available for lower Manhattan.  The only data available for lower Manhattan are for CO (carbon monoxide) for one site on Canal St. and PM 2.5 (a crude measure of fine dust, but says nothing about what is in the dust) at PS 64 on the lower east side.  These data are presented without accompanying information about the standards or whether the air exceeded any standard.  If more or earlier data is available online, it's not easy for the public to find.  DEC should make its entire air quality archives easily available on its website.


Not only was EPA's secretiveness and DEC's inaction reprehensible this time, but procedures should be put in place NOW to ensure that should anything like this ever happen again, the environmental agencies would immediately be meeting to coordinate comprehensive sampling and analysis, AND prompt disclosure to the public via the internet of ALL data along with all current and applicable standards as well as background levels for each pollutant. 


We also need to conduct research to understand toxic and carcinogenic impacts of multiple pollutants.  One method of doing this is by conducting assays using surrogate organisms, to observe the impacts of different pollutant combinations.  Tetramitus flagellate is one such organism that has been shown to indicate toxicity of unknown mixtures.  Dr. Robert Jaffe, of the Environmental Toxicology Laboratory,  has been pioneering work in this area.


Seventh, very little has been spoken about building codes, and how the composition, structure, and operation of buildings contributed to the death toll, and how revision of these regulations is needed to prevent future deaths.  When I worked on the 83rd floor of WTC 1 for a couple of years around 1980, we didn't have fire drills very often (I can only remember one, maybe two).  When we did have drills, we were told to walk down the stairs to the 78th floor at which point we were told to stay put.  That was the total extent of the fire drill.  Is that protective of public health?  The truth is, the WTC buildings were so tall that they were not readily evacuable.  The stairways were not designed to evacuate everyone in a reasonable amount of time.  To complicate this further, the Port Authority made announcements to go back to their offices.  They did not immediately send announcements to everyone in both buildings to evacuate to the ground floor and leave.  Some people who had gone to the first floor returned to their offices and lost their lives.  A last point:  Firefighters were coming up the same stairwells that the thousands of office workers were using to evacuate.  This effectively halved the capacity of the stairwells for evacuation purposes.  How many people might have gotten out if they didn't have to wait to enter a stairwell that was reduced to half its original capacity (remembering that some of the stairwells became impassable due to the fires themselves)?  How many other tall buildings in NYC have insufficient number of narrow stairwells?  How many are not totally evacuated during fire drills?  What about those in wheelchairs on high floors?  All these questions point to the need to limit the number of floors of new buildings to a size that can easily and routinely be evacuated quickly, assuming that firefighters will need space in the stairwells. 


Insofar as construction of future buildings is concerned, attention must be paid to the safety factor chosen for retarding the effect of fire on the building's structural members.  The WTC was designed to withstand the impact of a 707 aircraft.  But why wasn't it also assumed that the 707 would be carrying thousands of gallons of jet fuel, and that this jet fuel would cause a fire of sufficient temperature and duration to melt the steel members?  This is not a difficult mental exercise, and structural engineers figured this out within a day or so of having watched the floors compact.  There is no room for error.  If just one floor gives way, because the steel has partially melted, the weight of floors above comes crashing down, and the entire building will collapse, immediately, as we saw.  Note that WTC building #7 was not even hit by an aircraft, but it also collapsed due to the duration of fire.  The structural engineers interviewed said that it would have been possible to put a thicker layer of protective coating on the structural members of the WTC, but it would have cost a little more.  How many people would have been saved if the buildings held together for another half hour?  We should learn from this disaster.  Building codes should be revisited to address all these issues and correct all deficiencies. 


Since the City Council's Environmental Protection committee held two days of hearings (November 1 and 8), the Environmental Conservation Committee would be well served by looking at the transcripts and videos of those presentations -- particularly those presented by the public.  (On January 6, 2002, Stanley Michels, then chair of the City Council's environmental protection committee, told me the committee used my testimony in their recently completed, comprehensive report on the hearings.)


I'll close by drawing an analogy with the way the environmental agencies are dealing with the public health hazard downtown.  In south Florida, where I grew up, in the 1940s, as tourism was quickly growing, the government kept information about hurricanes secret for fear that too much information would hurt business, particularly the tourist trade.  Predictably, south Florida got walloped a couple of times, and then the government, wisely, decided to make an about-face and become the world's experts on hurricane tracking, prediction, alerts, mitigation and standards for evacuation of the population to protect the public health.  They established a world-class center in Coral Gables to serve as the source of information and research.  Later, by the time I was six, I was tracking every hurricane's progress on a chart I got for free at the 7-11 store by listening to the radio for coordinates.


We have exactly the same situation here.  There is a lot we don't know.  The government wants to protect business and the tourist trade.  The government has kept a great deal of information off limits to anyone for the first several weeks, and lately it has made it difficult to obtain in any usable form.  Even worse than this is that we don't know the long-lasting impacts of the initial huge, dense cloud of finely pulverized asbestos and silica-laden dust on those running and inhaling deeply in its midst.  We don't know the additive and synergistic effects of combinations of many toxic and carcinogenic pollutants that continue to be emitted from the fires or entrained from the dust as it blows off the rooftops and ledges.  Will this exposure to air pollution compromise immune systems, making people more vulnerable to future illnesses or terrorist attacks?  On what basis did the government choose a perimeter for evacuation?  On what basis did they rush to reopen the area?  Have we learned anything from this experience?  Now is a time for the environmental agencies to pull their heads from the sand, make an about-face, coordinate and release all data and interpretive guidelines on the Web.  We need to err on the side of caution rather than seeking to go "back to normal" at the cost of the public health.


The State should assist the City by committing its funds and encouraging the Governor to seek federal 9/11 grants on an accelerated basis to conduct ongoing, comprehensive surveillance of symptoms in affected populations, buy room filters for residents, pay for proper indoor and building cleanup, research the acute and long-term impacts on health of highly concentrated combinations of pollutants acting for a short time, as well as elevated levels of combinations acting for longer periods of time. 


The state government should write new standards to reflect short-term exposure to high concentrations, as in the initial cloud, as well as synergistic effects of many toxic, carcinogenic pollutants.  The State may prefer to rely on the federal government to write national standards, but in some cases the State has acted first, and this is clearly an instance where the State should act.  For example, New York State wrote standards for incinerator emissions in 1988, five years before the federal government, because they failed to act. 


We also need to have contingency planning for different types of environmental disasters as this new war against terrorism progresses.  We need to actively examine worst case scenarios and plan for them.  We need to understand how far to evacuate and for how long.  This is the only way to regain public trust. Recalling the hurricane example, and realizing that we may not be finished with terrorism, becoming the world's experts in environmental health disasters and being truly open with the public is the best course of action in the long term.