EPA Agrees to Address Risks to 9/11 First Responders
Whistleblower Petition Forces EPA to Examine Its Lax Corrosive Dust Limits
Washington, DC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is now legally committed to decide whether to dramatically tighten its corrosive dust limits so as to prevent the tragedy that befell the World Trade Center First Responders who waded into dust so caustic it permanently damaged their lungs. This action comes in response to a lawsuit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and an EPA chemist who protested for years that the agency’s dust standard is scientifically inaccurate and needlessly jeopardizes the lives of workers and the public.
Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, PEER and Dr. Cate Jenkins, the crusading EPA chemist, filed a formal rulemaking petition urging EPA to correct its dangerously incorrect corrosivity standard. After three more years of agency inaction, PEER sought a writ of mandamus before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. On October 8, 2014, the court ordered EPA to respond to the petition.
In a filing adopted late Friday by the Court, EPA pledged to act on the petition by March 31, 2016 with “an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking, a proposed rule, or a tentative determination to deny the petition.” The Court directed EPA “to file status reports at 120-day intervals beginning July 13, 2015.” Meanwhile, EPA has published contract assignments to provide the technical basis for new standards.
“EPA can no longer hide from this serious public health concern; it finally has to act,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, noting that if EPA ultimately fails to correct its corrosive dust safety limits, it will be vulnerable to another suit that this decision lacks a rational basis. “Getting agencies like EPA to admit they have been wrong, especially when many people have died as a result, is no small undertaking.”
The current 35-year old EPA regulation is ten times more lax than the presumed safe levels for alkaline corrosives set by the United Nations, the European Union and Canada. Alkaline corrosive dust released during building demolition and cement manufacturing can reach levels that can cause chemical burns, especially to respiratory tissue. But under EPA standards these dangerous levels are exempt from hazardous waste regulations. As a result, EPA has never before issued any warning to the public because of the alkaline, corrosive properties of dust from implosion demolitions of large buildings, including at the World Trade Center following the 9/11 attacks.
One fundamental fallacy of the current EPA standard is a false distinction between water- and non-water-containing materials. The standard overlooks the fact that water-free alkaline materials quickly absorb water from body tissues, particularly the respiratory tract, on human contact. This can result in irreversible chemical burns, particularly after inhalation. In addition, the standards do not recognize that this corrosive dust kills or immobilizes ciliary cells lining the throat and upper respiratory tract, allowing other toxic materials to directly reach deep inside the lungs.
“We should be grateful that Dr. Jenkins had the courage and perseverance to endure much official backlash in order to bring these public health protections in line with the rest of the world and with sound science,” concluded Dinerstein.