Enviros Blame Bush for WTC Health Hazards

The Sierra Club this week attacked the President for supposedly showing "reckless disregard" by failing to warn the public of alleged health risks posed by "toxic" smoke from the World Trade Center rubble.

"The desire to reopen Wall Street cannot justify placing civilian safety at risk," asserted the Sierra Club (search).

Now there's no question that lower Manhattan residents were exposed to varying levels of smoke, dust and fumes — including asbestos (search), mineral fibers and a soup of chemicals — as a result of the WTC collapse on and after Sept. 11.

There's also no question that some residents developed new, or exacerbated existing, respiratory-system health effects as a result of those exposures.

But the data mustered by the Sierra Club, in its effort to demonstrate that the Bush administration acted with "reckless disregard" of the public health after the Sept. 11 attacks, doesn't come close to supporting that serious charge.

'"There appeared to be a significant increase in new-onset asthma (search) in Chinatown ... after the attack," claimed the Sierra Club, citing a recent study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

When I examined the study results, however, I learned something different.

The study, in fact, only reported increases in asthma-clinic visits and prescriptions written, and did not report any new diagnoses of "new-onset asthma" or increased use of oral steroids (search) or inhalers.

Another interpretation of this data could be that understandably worried residents were prescribed asthma medications on a just-in-case basis.

In any event, there are no credible reports of a post-Sept. 11 epidemic of "new-onset asthma" among lower Manhattan residents.

The Sierra Club report also mentioned a vague, unpublished report of an undisclosed — and unvalidated — increase in coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath among a small sample of lower Manhattan residents following Sept. 11.

I don't doubt that some of this occurred, but the sketchy nature of the report seems to indicate that any increase in health effects probably wasn't serious or long-lasting.

No doubt because the actual health effects associated with the WTC collapse among lower Manhattan residents are relatively few, the Sierra Club raises the specter of future illnesses from exposure to WTC debris.

"Many of the effects of human exposure to the WTC pollution will not manifest for many years. Lung cancer may not be detected for a period of 10 to 30 years after first exposure, and the latency period for mesothelioma (search) — an asbestos-caused cancer — ranges from 20 to 50 years," alleges the Sierra Club.

The notion that WTC pollution will lead to lung cancer or mesothelioma is utter nonsense.

First, the vast majority of lung cancer occurs among long-term heavy smokers. It's unlikely that anyone's exposure to dust, debris and fumes emanating from the WTC collapse — even among rescue workers — was of sufficient intensity or duration to by itself lead to lung cancer.

Next, long-term exposures to high levels of certain types of asbestos have increased the rates of disease among former asbestos workers, particularly among those who smoked. But this is not the WTC situation.

Though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that asbestos was identified in some airborne dust samples collected following the WTC collapse, the levels were low and contained chrysotile, the least hazardous type of asbestos.

Data, including a 1998 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, indicate that non-occupational exposures to chrysotile asbestos (search) don't increase cancer risk.

None of this, then, constitutes evidence that President Bush acted with disregard to the public health after Sept. 11.

Given the need to get our financial system up and running as soon as possible after the attacks, I'd say President Bush acted quite wisely. His actions stand in stark contrast to those who have tried to exploit Sept. 11 health fears for their own political and pecuniary benefit, including trial lawyers, Sen. Hillary Clinton and junk scientists.

Now the anti-Bush Sierra Club has joined that rabble as the Republican Party gathers for its convention in New York City.

If there has been any "reckless disregard" with respect to the public-health aftermath of Sept. 11, it's been due to the junk-science mob with respect to the truth.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of " Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams" (Cato Institute, 2001) .

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