A Cautionary Tale

Al Qaeda's unseen ally: Environmental extremism

By Steven Miller
  • Tuesday, December 11, 2001

No American will ever forget the images of the World Trade Center towers on September 11—huge holes gaping, smoke pouring out.

Those images, burned on our brains, will forever be linked with what came next: the agonizingly awful, crumbling collapse of both towers—first of the top floors and then of the entire buildings—killing thousands of men, women and children and hundreds of rescue workers.

What most Americans do not know, however, is that the people killed by the collapsing towers need not have died.

Although hundreds had already perished on the floors of the crashes—96 to 103 of WTC One and floors 87 to 93 of WTC Two—the great majority of building occupants were still alive. Helped by rescue personnel, most were evacuating the towers. Other occupants, trapped on the stories above the fire, were awaiting emergency instructions—as the rooftop helicopter evacuations that building emergency plans called for.

But the buildings fell.

The video footage shows why. Inside the gaping tower holes, at the back, the steel columns that supported the towers can be seen glowing orange from the heat of the blazing tons of aircraft fuel. When the towers were planned, their architectural design had specified asbestos insulation on the columns, to delay any melting of the steel. Under the flame-retardant insulation, the columns could continue to bear their loads for up to four hours of serious fire.

On the floors where the planes exploded, however, that insulation had not been used. It had only been applied on floors 1 through 64.

Why no higher? Because in 1971, while the World Trade Center was still under construction, New York City had imposed politically correct across-the-board bans on the use of asbestos.  The particular spray fireproofing used to insulate steel columns had never been found to pose environmental risks, but it did contain a  wet asbestos compound. And—thanks to enviro-activists and the federal Environmental Protection Agency—“asbestos” was suddenly a demon-word. Within a decade, better science would show that most of the dire warnings about asbestos were hugely inflated. At the time, however, with environmental activists and EPA bureaucrats both out to justify their existence, the demon-word was wielded with abandon. Spooked, the politicians rolled their eyes, snorted and stampeded. The builders of the World Trade Center were ordered to switch to an inferior insulation for the girders on floors 65 and above.

Levine's warning

In the years afterward, the man who had invented the original wet-asbestos spray fireproofing process, the late Herbert Levine, often voiced a warning.

“If a fire breaks out above the 64th floor, that building will fall down,” he frequently said, according to his lawyer and other professionals who knew him.

On September 11, 2001, an intense fire did break out far above the 64th floor—and in each of the towers. The thermal insulation on the steel columns of the floors where the jumbo jets crashed afforded insufficient protection from the intense heat, and the columns softened and buckled. The floors above, no longer supported, collapsed downward. Then, each successively lower floor, unable to support the hundreds of thousands of tons of material, cascaded lower and the entire building collapsed.

Richard Wilson, a physics professor at Harvard University and an expert on risk, says the late Herbert Levine was most probably correct.

“I believe that it is correct that asbestos sprayed on wet, by Herbert Levine's technique, gave 3 to 5 times lower ambient levels than asbestos sprayed on dry,” Wilson told the Nevada Policy Research Institute. He added that, “No adverse health effect has ever been attributed” to the Levine process.

In layman’s words, there was no scientific justification for banning the flame-retardant wet-asbestos insulation on the steel girders of the World Trade Towers. If not for environmentalist hysteria and stampeded public officials, the towers most likely would have lasted significantly longer. Thousands of occupants could have evacuated the site and they and hundreds off rescue people below could have survived.

There is more to this cautionary tale about the destructive consequences of environmental junk science operating through politicized government agencies. Soon after the World Trade Center fell, news outlets reported that asbestos was now swirling in the air at the downtown Manhattan site. New York City health officials, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the federal EPA all showed up to test air quality.

“What they did next,” wrote Kimberley A. Strassel in the Wall Street Journal, “was nothing less than astonishing: They said it was safe to be downtown.”

It was a complete reversal of field. “For anyone who knows the history of these agencies,” wrote Strassel, “such proclamations are akin to heresy. For decades, the EPA has taken the lead in zero-tolerance policies toward any ‘carcinogenic’ substance unlucky enough to have caught its eye….”

In this instance, however, the EPA was aware that continuing its public-health-scare tactics could have triggered an even wider public catastrophe. And so at last, after decades, the agency admitted the truth: Asbestos is harmful only if breathed at levels of high concentration and over long periods. Although some tests exceeded EPA-set safety levels, agency officials acknowledged that those levels were only a “stringent standard based on long-term exposure.” They repeated that the public was not at any real risk. Three months later, tests at “ground zero” showed much less asbestos in and around the site than the environmentalists’ “experts” had predicted.

Steven Miller is editorial director of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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