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EPA to Reassess Toxic Dust Limits in Light of 9/11 Illnesses

May 13, 2015

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has agreed to decide whether to dramatically adjust corrosive dust limits to prevent the kind of permanent lung damage suffered by 9/11 first responders, recovery workers, and area residents.

The EPA's action comes in response to a lawsuit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and an EPA chemist who has asserted for years that the agency's dust standard is scientifically inaccurate and jeopardizes the lives of workers and the public.

Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, PEER and Dr. Cate Jenkins, the EPA chemist, filed a formal rulemaking petition urging the EPA to correct its dangerously incorrect corrosivity standard. When the EPA had not acted three years after the petition was filed, PEER sought a writ of mandamus before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. On October 8, 2014, the court ordered the EPA to respond to the petition, according to a PEER news release. In a court filing in March, the EPA pledged to act on the petition by March 31, 2016 with "an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking, a proposed rule, or a tentative determination to deny the petition." The court directed the EPA "to file status reports at 120-day intervals beginning July 13, 2015." The EPA has published contract assignments to provide the technical basis for new standards.

"EPA can no longer hide from this serious public health concern; it finally has to act," PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein said. If the EPA fails to correct the corrosive dust safety limits, it will be vulnerable to another suit that this decision lacks a rational basis. "Getting agencies like EPA to admit they have been wrong, especially when many people have died as a result, is no small undertaking."

PEER says the EPA's current regulation—which is 35 years old—is ten times more lax than safe levels for alkaline corrosives set by the United Nations, the European Union, and Canada. Alkaline corrosive dust released during building demolition and cement manufacturing can reach levels that can cause chemical burns, especially to respiratory tissue. But under EPA standards these dangerous levels are exempt from hazardous waste regulations. The agency has never issued a warning to the public about the corrosive properties of dust from implosion demolitions of large buildings, including at the World Trade Center following the 9/11 attacks. The current EPA standard makes what PEER says is a false distinction between water- and non-water-containing materials. The standard overlooks the fact that water-free alkaline materials quickly absorb water from body tissues, particularly the respiratory tract, on human contact. This can result in irreversible chemical burns, particularly after inhalation. PEER says the standards do not recognize that this corrosive dust kills or immobilizes ciliary cells lining the throat and upper respiratory tract, allowing other toxic materials to directly reach deep inside the lungs.

Dinerstein said, "We should be grateful that Dr. Jenkins had the courage and perseverance to endure much official backlash in order to bring these public health protections in line with the rest of the world and with sound science."

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