World Trade Center Rescue Workers Made Ill from Toxic Dust Finally Hear from Former EPA Head, Christine Todd Whitman

World Trade Center rescue workers, many of them sickened by contaminated dust, finally had a chance to hear from former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Christine Todd Whitman at a congressional hearing investigating the government’s response to the terrorist attacks. Many first-responders hold Whitman and the EPA responsible for health problems they’ve suffered since aiding in the rescue efforts at Ground Zero. They contend that statements released by the agency and its former head led them to believe the air around the fallen buildings was safe to breath.

Calling the accusation that she deliberately misled the public “utterly false”, Whitman claimed that assertions she made a week after the WTC attack regarding air quality in lower Manhattan was safe were based on what experts had told her. But her testimony contradicts a 2003 report by the EPA’s own inspector general which found that the agency did not have any scientific facts to back up claims it made following the 9/11 attacks. Shortly after the tragedy, the EPA issued a series of statements assuring the public and the WTC Emergency Rescue Workers that the air around Ground Zero was safe to breathe. On September 18th Whitman herself was quoted in a press release: “Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, DC that their air is safe to breathe.” As a result, many rescue workers spent weeks sifting through the debris with little protective gear.

Since then, many of the <"">WTC Emergency Workers have faced chronic health problems. A study by the Mt. Sinai Medical Center found that of 9,000 WTC responders, 70-percent had suffered some type of lung ailment after the attacks, and that 60-percent still faced respiratory problems. When asked about the Mt. Sinai study, Whitman conceded that she had not read it. Another report released by the FDNY in early May reported that cases of the rare lung disease sarcoidosis had risen dramatically among firefighters and EMS workers who had spent time at Ground Zero. And the worst may not be over. Many of the chemicals that rescue workers were exposed to, like <"">asbestos and dioxin, are dangerous carcinogens. Public health authorities are already bracing for what might be the next wave of health problems related to the 9/11 tragedy – a surge in cancer and cancer-related deaths among rescue workers.

Whitman attempted to defend her statements, saying they were aimed at Manhattan residents, not rescue workers. “Was it wrong to try to get the city back on its feet as quickly as possible? Absolutely not,” she insisted. But just last week a report made public by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) uncovered evidence that the EPA made misleading statements about dust contamination in residences around Ground Zero. The reported concluded that many people living in the area neglected to enroll their homes in a special decontamination program because they were told by the EPA that air samples taken from apartments close to Ground Zero had been found to be safe. What they weren’t told was that those homes had already been through the cleaning process.

Quite often, Whitman’s testimony was interrupted by boos and catcalls by the many WTC emergency workers who attended the hearing. Whitman and the EPA are defendants in three separate lawsuits brought by city residents and rescue workers.

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