The Junkman's Answer to Terrorism: Use More Asbestos

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This article was first published as "The Junkman's Answer to Terrorism: Use More Asbestos"in PR Watch, Volume 8, No. 4, 4th Quarter 2001. The article is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

Steven Milloy, the Cato Institute's self-proclaimed critic of "junk science," took the attacks on the World Trade Center as a cue to speak up for asbestos, which is still a product liability concern for manufacturers even though it was pulled off the market years ago due to its link with lung cancer.

"Asbestos fibers in the air and rubble following the collapse of the World Trade Center is adding to fears in the aftermath of Tuesday's terrorist attack," Milloy wrote in a September 14 column for Fox News. "The true story in the asbestos story, though, is the lives that might have been saved but for 1970s-era hysteria about asbestos." He went on to speculate that asbestos insulation might have delayed the steel framework of the building from melting "by up to four hours."

Milloy's column inspired a similar piece in the Times of London, followed by a New York Times story that said "some engineers and scientists are haunted by a troubling question: were the substitute materials as effective in protecting against fire as the asbestos containing materials they replaced?"

The only individuals quoted to support this theory, however, were scientists who had previously worked as paid expert witnesses for the asbestos industry during product liability lawsuits filed by cancer victims.

None of these experts had actually done research comparing asbestos to other heat-resistant insulating materials in the event of a plane crash like the one that destroyed the World Trade Towers, and in fact there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to support the claim that asbestos would have delayed the collapse of the towers by even five seconds, let alone four hours.

It may be some time before anyone can assess the health consequences of the asbestos that was released into the air of New York following the terrorist attack. Asbestos was used in the first 40 floors of the World Trade Towers and ended up in the ash which covered the streets of the city and contaminated the air around lower Manhattan after the towers collapsed. Emergency personnel and others at the scene wore surgical style masks during the relief effort, but many said that even with the masks, breathing was very difficult amid the choking, acrid smoke and dust blanketing the area.

Like Milloy, the industry-funded American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) went to pains to downplay the hazard. "Some activists are raising concerns about very low levels of asbestos in the air in Downtown Manhattan since the WTC tragedy," commented an ACSH news release.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported initially that its air tests found low levels of asbestos near the disaster, but a subsequent study by independent researchers found that the EPA tests did not detect all of the asbestos that was released.

"The study, by the Virginia firm HP Environmental, found that the force of the explosions apparently shattered the asbestos into fibers so small that they evade the EPA's ordinary testing methods," reported Newsweek on October 5. "The EPA tests for asbestos particles greater than a half micron in size.... But the study concluded that there is such an overwhelming concentration of those ultrasmall particles that many are being missed by standard microscopy techniques. 'This stuff was just crushed, just pulverized,' says lead author Hugh Granger. 'As it turns out, when we now measure and look for these very small fibers in the air and buildings, we find them, and we find them in uniquely elevated concentrations.'"

Some evidence suggests that ultrasmall asbestos particles may actually pose a worse health threat than larger particles. Smaller particles tend to remain suspended in the air where they can be inhaled, and they may penetrate more easily into the depths of the lungs. "We probably will find out a lot more about the health aspects of asbestos from this event, unfortunately," said Dr. Alan Fein, chief of pulmonary and critical-care medicine at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, who has treated several patients for "World Trade Center syndrome": respiratory distress stemming from relatively brief exposures of a day or two near the collapsed buildings.