Labor unions that represent the thousands of rescue and recovery workers at the World Trade Center (WTC) towers site in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have suspected for some time that they weren’t getting the full story about the health dangers of working there. The same goes for the tens of thousands of New Yorkers in the immediate and extended area who inhaled the fumes and dust associated with the catastrophe.

Their suspicions were well founded. It now emerges that the Bush White House deliberately suppressed information about the continuing dangers from the fumes, dust and smoke emanating from the WTC and forced the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the premier federal agency in charge of environmental matters, do the same.

Presumably the Bush administration downplayed the harmful health effects of the disaster to promote the resumption of Wall Street commerce. Big employers wanted to get their workers back on the job right away. So workers were called back. As a consequence, tens of thousands of people – maybe more – face the possibility of lifelong, disabling diseases and premature death.

The revelation about the White House role came from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) within the EPA itself. The OIG released a portion of its report on the disaster in early August, but only recently released the most damning part of the report, i.e., that the White House forced the EPA to lie about the danger.

“All is safe to return to work,” the EPA said in so many words. Yet the new OIG report says that EPA claims of environmental safety were not supported by available data. “When EPA made a Sept. 18 [2001] announcement that the air was ‘safe’ to breathe, the agency did not have sufficient data and analyses to make that statement,” the report says. Further, it says, “The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) influenced, through the collaboration process, the information that the EPA communicated to the public through its early press releases when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones.”

This news is of major importance, given the leadership role the EPA plays in relation to other key agencies. By downplaying the potential health problems, the EPA signaled to other agencies – federal, state, and local – that they should do so, too.

This helps explain the lackluster investigative efforts of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and New York state Labor Department’s Public Employee Safety and Health Section.

In addition to other employers in the New York area, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Verizon and Con Edison took their lead from the EPA/OSHA websites and forced their employees back to work in the WTC area well before it was safe. The human cost of this decision is still to be calculated.

As an illustration, the Aug. 6 Journal of the American Medical Association reported that “exposure to air pollution [similar to the WTC disaster] has been associated with intrauterine growth restriction,” for pregnant women, a serious problem. This is just the beginning of these kinds of findings.

Early on, Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton pressed the White House and Congress to fund occupational and environmental medical clinics to look after victims of the disaster. While $100 million was obtained for screening, much more needs to be done.

Sen. Clinton has called on the Justice Department to investigate the “role of White House in directing the EPA to downplay the hazards of World Trade Center contaminations.” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), whose district includes the WTC area, has also called for a federal investigation.

Restoring the lives of workers who risked their lives in the rescue and cleanup should be at the top of the agenda. The same goes for the residents, students, and workers who were forced back into the WTC area well before it was safe to do so. Free medical services should be offered to those diagnosed with respiratory and cancer-related illnesses.

The Republican National Convention is set for New York City in September 2004. The White House is hoping to use the images of Bush at Ground Zero alongside rescue workers, allegedly showing his great concern, to boost his election campaign. This Madison Avenue image must be given a 180-degree turnaround so that Bush and his gang of corporate thieves are exposed to the light of day and tossed out of the White House and Congress.

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