Last week’s column, "Asbestos Could Have Saved WTC Lives," produced tremendous and polarized reader response.
Most readers appreciated the article for pointing out that overreaction to the health risks of asbestos may have hastened the collapse of the World Trade Center towers thereby preventing many from escape. Other readers offered a variety of criticisms ranging in theme from manners to myths.
Some readers criticized the timing of the article. "Now is not the time to talk about ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda.’ Your piece provides no comfort to any of the victims or the families. It does nothing more than point a finger. Perhaps at some point, that finger will need to be pointed. Today is not that day."
While this criticism certainly has merit, it was outweighed by other considerations.
There is little, if anything, that the media can do to provide genuine comfort to those who lost family and friends in the tragedy. That is not the news media’s job anyway. The news media’s job is to report on current events and provide relevant opinion through its commentators. This column falls in the latter category.
On the day of the tragedy, the news media was already peppering government officials with absurd questions, and unnecessarily alarming the public about the possibility of an asbestos hazard caused by the dust from the World Trade Center rubble. My column merely raised the flip side of this false alarm — the potentially steep price paid for incorporating health scares into public policy and building design.
Unfortunately, the best time to make this point is when the public is paying attention – as it was last week. Even the New York Times, which rarely questions the orthodoxy of health scares, perceived value in addressing the issue — although not until five days after this column.
Inevitability of collapse
Other critics noted that, regardless of the type of insulation used in the World Trade Center, the steel girders would have melted anyway given the high temperatures from burning jet fuel and insulation damaged by airplane impact.
There is no dispute that the towers would have collapsed no matter what. The issue, though, is time. Since asbestos insulation was superior to the substitute used in the World Trade Center towers, it is possible that better insulation would have slowed down girder melting and the collapse of the towers, thereby allowing more people to escape. Even minutes would have made a difference for many.
Since no health benefits were realized by foregoing asbestos insulation in the World Trade Center towers, even the possibility of a few extra minutes of time easily justifies the use of the material.
Many readers, especially personal injury lawyers representing asbestos plaintiffs, pelted me with asbestos lore, particularly that asbestos has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in the U.S.
This claim, however, is not based in fact. It originated from a prediction made by asbestos hysterics in the late-1970s that asbestos exposure in the U.S. would cause between 10,000 to 67,000 deaths per year until about 2010.
But data from the National Center for Health Statistics indicate these predictions were way off-base. Asbestos-related deaths in the U.S. appear to have peaked in the late-1990s at about a few thousand per year.
Yes, 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 situation at the World Trade Center site.
Though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that asbestos was identified in some airborne dust samples collected following the collapse of the towers, the levels are low and contain the least hazardous type of asbestos (chrysotile).
Data, including a 1998 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, indicate that non-occupational exposures to chrysotile asbestos don’t increase cancer risk.
An interesting bit of information came from a reader who was hired in 1983 by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to make a film about the construction of the World Trade Center.
The engineers responsible for overseeing construction supposedly told him that One World Trade Center was completely insulated with asbestos, but only two-thirds of Two World Trade Center had been insulated with asbestos when New York City banned the material in 1971. One World Trade Center lasted 45 minutes longer than Two World Trade Center.
Almost literally adding fuel to the fire is that more than half of the original asbestos was eventually removed from the twin towers, a Port Authority spokesman told the New York Times. Experts say that the replacement insulation was inferior to asbestos.
We’ll never know for sure whether asbestos insulation might have provided a few extra minutes of escape from the doomed towers. But this is an issue worth raising and debating, not to point fingers but to inform an attentive public that bogus health scares may have consequences.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of the upcoming book Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).