EPA Sued for 9/11 First Responder Neglect
Woefully Lax EPA Corrosive Dust Standards Endanger Responders and Residents
Washington, DC — Thirteen years after “First Responders” to the World Trade Center collapse waded into dust so caustic it permanently damaged their respiratory systems, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency still has not corrected its standards to prevent a recurrence of that tragedy, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The suit seeks to dramatically tighten EPA’s corrosivity standard so that responders would be on notice to use personal protection equipment to prevent needless disability or death.
After the horrific World Trade Center (WTC) disaster on September 11, 2001, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman assured a worried nation and terrified residents that the airborne hazardous substances at the site were “below background levels” and no worse than a “typical smoggy day.” She could not have been more wrong. But her mistake still has yet to be corrected, leaving residents, firefighters, police and others responding today to building demolitions and implosions similarly vulnerable.
Today PEER filed for a writ of mandamus before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on the basis of EPA’s failure to act on a rulemaking petition filed with it three years ago – the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – to correct its dangerously inaccurate corrosivity standard. That petition was filed jointly by PEER and a crusading EPA chemist, Dr. Cate Jenkins, who has urged this reform for years.
The current EPA regulation is unchanged since 1980 but the suit argues an update is needed because:
- The EPA standard is ten times more lax than the presumed safe levels for alkaline corrosives set by the United Nations, the European Union and Canada;
- EPA based its standard on a misrepresentation of the international corrosivity standard and has steadfastly refused to revisit this clear error in the succeeding decades; and
- Contains a false distinction between water and non-water containing materials. This is because on human contact, water-free alkaline materials quickly absorb water from body tissues, particularly the respiratory tract. At high enough levels, this causes permanent tissue damage.
“This lawsuit seeks to right a monstrous wrong compounded by official neglect,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, pointing out that EPA has a track record of ignoring rulemaking petitions no matter how meritorious. “Despite rhetoric about EPA over-regulation, in reality citizen suits are often required before EPA finally lumbers into action, even on matters of grave public health import.”
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 WTC. Alkaline corrosive materials can cause irreversible chemical burns, particularly after inhalation. In addition, they defeat the natural respiratory protections against particulates reaching the lungs, by killing or immobilizing ciliary cells lining the throat and upper respiratory tract. This allows other toxic materials to directly reach the lungs.
“EPA has no excuse for maintaining a public health standard so far behind the rest of the developed world,” added Dinerstein, noting that Dr. Jenkins has suffered a long ordeal of official reprisal after raising this issue to the EPA Inspector General, the FBI and Congress. “Those inside EPA often see perverse management that both ignores the message and still tries to kill the messenger.”