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Asbestos in the World Trade Center (News)

By Eloquence
Thu Sep 13th, 2001 at 07:57:11 AM EST


The asbestos fiber was a common protection against fire and heat in many products, especially building components, until its heavily toxic effects became known. The American Lung Association warns that "if asbestos should become airborne and is inhaled, it can remain in the lungs for a long period of time, producing the risk for severe health problems several years later". The incubation time can last up to 30 years. Health effects can include asbestosis, lung cancer and other diseases, depending on the concentration. How much asbestos was in the WTC? Which health effects will it cause, now that it is all over New York City?


Current images from New York suggest extremely heavy and wide-spread fallout from the destroyed buildings. The question of whether asbestos was used in the building, and how much, therefore seems to be of high significance. The WTC was built from 1966-1971. The fact that asbestos is carcinogenic received wide-spread publicity in the seventies, and asbestos was still used in schools well into the seventies (see American Spectator article below). So it seemed reasonable to me to assume that asbestos was still used, and here's what I found through a Google search (I checked the first 6 pages, if anyone wants to continue):

[on 1993 WTC bombing:]
"Wood, who helped with the investigation, says that he was not allowed onto the blast site because loose debris and asbestos made it hazardous."

"WR Grace Asbestos containing insulation was used at the World Trade Center (WTC). James Cintani stated that Grace Vermiculite did not contain asbestos. Unfortunately this was not true this material was 2-5 percent asbestos. 100,000 80 pound bags of this vermiculite was used in the WTC. In addition 9,150 pounds of MonoKote 3 was used at the WTC. Monokote 3 was about 20 percent asbestos. Therefore in total about 201,183 pounds of pure asbestos fiber from Grace was used in the WTC."

Unfortunately, Grace was not the only supplier:

British Asbestos Newsletter
Issue 23 : Spring 1996
"In December T&N, formerly the largest asbestos company in Britain, reached a favorable settlement with the Port Authority (PA) of New York and New Jersey, the body responsible for JFK, La Guardia and Newark airports and the World Trade Center. The PA had brought a $600m lawsuit against 37 defendants, including T&N, for asbestos contamination of municipal buildings."

Contract WTC-115.310 - The World Trade Center Removal and Disposal of Vinyl Asbestos Floor Tiles and Other Incidental Asbestos-Containing Building Materials Via Work Order Estimate Range: $1,000,000 annually Bids due Tuesday, October 17, 2000 [emphasis mine].

May 5 - 11, 2001
"Chalk up one victory for insurers in the escalating asbestos-claims mOlOe: the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey has lost a 10-year-old court battle to get its insurers to pay more than $600 million for removing asbestos from its properties, including the World Trade Center and New York's airports. The judge ruled that asbestos abatement costs by themselves do not constitute 'physical loss or damage' under the Port Authority's all-risk policies. The agency is considering an appeal." [emphasis mine]

[interesting overview on asbestos problem]
Copyright 1989 by The American Spectator
"Coming soon to a school or office near you: a life-saving innovation that could kill you, designed to correct a problem that doesn't exist, by removing materials that aren't dangerous until somebody tries to remove them. And guess who's going to pay for it." ... "For example, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is expecting to pay about $1 billion for the abatement of just the World Trade Center and LaGuardia Airport. (New York City law requires abatement if renovation work is being done, as it is at these buildings.) ..."

Based on this information, it can be said with reasonable certainty that several tons of asbestos were in the World Trade Center. With the dust of the WTC now clouding the city, contamination is very likely, but measurings of the dust should be taken before jumping to any conclusions. After my search, some news media started to mention the asbestos issue, mostly this ABCNews article which states that

The Trade Center reportedly decided more than 10 years ago to treat the health risk by encapsulating the asbestos to prevent the particles from being inhaled.

To my knowledge, "encapsulating" means that the asbestos fibers are simply painted over, or that asbestos-covered shafts are sealed, to avoid direct human contact and air contamination. With both WTC towers destroyed, this "encapsulation" is of no relevance. What matters is the degree of asbestos-contamination which is now in New York City.

As school is supposed to begin again tomorrow, this problem should be addressed as soon as possible. Residents of NYC should stay in their homes, keep their windows closed and shut down the air conditioning (the filters won't work on the fiber).

Because of the lawsuits mentioned in the above articles, information on asbestos use in the WTC will also be hard to find (consider the potential damages involved as a good motivation for a cover-up). It is also likely that NY authorities will not publish asbestos air measurings in order to avoid wide-spread panic and possibly accountability (since Port Authorities have delayed a clean-up for years). The health problems this fallout will bring will remain unknown for a long time.

Appendix: Damage Estimations

We can make some very shaky assumptions about the amount of asbestos exposure New Yorkers will suffer, and the consequences it will have. WB Grace et al. provided at least about 200,000 pounds of asbestos (~100 tons) for use in the WTC. Most of it can be assumed to be still in the rubble pile -- let's say 1% (1 ton or 1E6 grams) is uniformly spread over the area of New York City of 800 square kilometres (8E8 m^2). (We can definitely say that this is not the case but that the concentration is much higher in certain areas.) Let's say it is mixed in the air up to a height of ca. 10 m, so you get 8E9 m^3 and a concentration of 100 ug/m^3 (1 ug = 1E-6 g, 1 ng = 1E-9 g).

In http://www.fumento.com/asbest.html one finds "3,5 ng/m^3 = 0,0001 fibers per cubic centimenter" (=fibers/cc) which results in 1 fiber/cc = 30 ug/m^3.

The above calculation therefore results in about 3 fibers/cc.

The official US Air Force regulations recommend:

  • A time-weighted-average permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 0.1 fibers/cubic centimeter (f/cc) for all asbestos work in all industries;
  • An asbestos excursion limit above which no employee should be exposed equivalent to an airborne concentration of asbestos in excess of 1.0 fiber per cubic centimeter of air (1 f/cc) as averaged over a sampling period of thirty (30) minutes

(Excursion limit = limit for the length of an excursion = ~30 minutes.) Now we are 30 times above industry level and 3 times above worst case for 30 minutes.

It could be better if (aside from basic assumptions):

  • fibers are clumped together with other dust particles, so that particle size is much larger which supports removal of fibers from lungs in a natural way (coughing them up again etc.).
It could be worse if:
  • asbestos fibers are incorporated (eaten, drunk) -- they could separate from the dust and spread freely
  • dust is much higher concentrated in lower Manhattan (and nearby Brooklyn/Queens area - was it the direction of the downwind?) than assumed by the numbers above.
  • most is on ground, not in the air. But if dust on the ground is whirled up the concentration around a person or house could be much higher than the 3 fibers/cc assumed above.
  • dust settles on windows, staircases, clothings and cars. Gets destributed to the living room as permanent exposure.
  • what about the amount of asbestos used in the WTC not from WB Grace? The total amount of asbestos in the WTC could be much higher.
To sum it up I think one should be very careful with the dust, especially regarding children and people below 30. 30 years is the typical incubation time.

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Asbestos in the World Trade Center | 44 comments (40 topical, 4 editorial, 0 pending)
No Asbestos Risk (none / 0) (#44)
by jasonab on Wed Sep 19th, 2001 at 05:45:48 PM EST

Article from the Sep 18 Washington Post

Maybe next time we should look before yelling conspiracy.

It is a tribute (5.00 / 2) (#43)
by itsbruce on Sun Sep 16th, 2001 at 01:13:07 PM EST
(its bruce at uklinux dot net)

To the stability and resilience of your country that you have the time and energy to worry about this. No satire or mockery intended, I'm perfectly serious.
--I unfortunately do not know how to turn cheese into gold.
Just for smokers (3.00 / 1) (#37)
by T Ov on Fri Sep 14th, 2001 at 05:15:34 PM EST

My father did some research about asbestos about 15 years ago, and if I remember correctly, his conclusions were that asbestos is mainly dangerous to smokers. Non-smokers needn't that worried.

And, smokers have chosen to die from lung cancer anyway, so who cares... ;-)

More asbestos could have save lives! (4.00 / 1) (#32)
by Mike McCune on Fri Sep 14th, 2001 at 12:39:16 PM EST

At least according to Fox News. The WTC only had asbestos up to the 64th floor. Asbestos on the upper floors would have slowed down the burn and would have given people more time to escape.


I wish you were wrong... (4.00 / 2) (#31)
by broody on Fri Sep 14th, 2001 at 10:32:13 AM EST
(broody@broody.org) http://www.broody.org

I wish that I could scream "bull and poppycock" and tear holes in your essay but I cannot. You are right and you brought it to everyone's attention before the mass media started to be concerned. The air samples are starting to show high concentrations of asbestos and the danger is real.

Your essay is well written and timely, I don't mean to begrudge you that at all. I just wish it was so...

Broody.OrgPlease show this to your boss or HR.
yeah, but it's the american's fault (1.00 / 4) (#28)
by Cenic on Fri Sep 14th, 2001 at 07:32:09 AM EST

Don't blame the terrorists, they were pressured into this situation. If the US didn't give involved in all those world issues none of this would happen. Americans should just stay where they are, no one needs there help. Why do they try to help? Because they are bullies, bullies who forces their ideology upon the world. If Israel wants to blow up Palestine, let them. If germany wants to blow up the UK, let them. This is the natural progression, the US SHOULD NOT get involved. Just stay in our own country!

The american right always think they are so right, they step in funding nations. Why? I don't know... Why do they think they can prevent war? They can't... They only create war... I echo what Dash2 said, this was America's fault for pissing off the rest of the world! America, the imperialistic country which wishes to control the world! The rest of the world should stop propping the US up, supporting the US like a child, we should stop trade with the US. We should tell all the businesses in our country to leave. We should tell all US citizens in our country to leave. We should isolate the rich, arrogant pigs from the rest of the world, so they can not force their will on us, we would be so much better!

Irony of asbestos not used in WTC (4.50 / 2) (#27)
by DrHow on Fri Sep 14th, 2001 at 02:08:56 AM EST

According to this article by Steven Milloy, the City of New York banned the use of sprayed asbestos for the steel superstructure of buildings like the WTC in 1971. At the time, it had already been used up to the 64th floors of the towers. The alternative methods used above the 64th floors are apparently not as effective at protecting the steel from fire. Had this ban not occurred, it is likely that there would have been additional time to evacuate the floors below the fires before structural failure occurred.

Asbestos Confirmed in Rubble (5.00 / 3) (#24)
by Eloquence on Thu Sep 13th, 2001 at 06:28:52 PM EST

Please note that air samples might not show high asbestos levels if the dust has already settled, therefore dust samples must be taken.

(AP) "Tests of rubble from the World Trade Center show elevated levels of asbestos, EPA spokesman Chris Paulitz said Thursday." They didn't find anything in Brooklyn, but it is unclear what they have sampled. The below article seems to confirm that these were air samples:


September 13, 2001 -- Federal safety experts worked feverishly yesterday to protect thousands of rescuers as they stepped over smoking debris - and into a potential land mine of lung-choking asbestos and cornea-scratching silica.

The asbestos level in the billowing smoke enveloping workers digging for survivors was four times the safe level, said one cop at the scene of the World Trade Center.

"There is concern regarding rescue workers and asbestos and silica (the sandy residue from demolished cement and sheet rock)," acknowledged Bill Wright, spokesman for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Organization.

"Normally, employees dealing with asbestos require eight hours of training. Obviously we can't do this here."

Wright said OSHA was sending teams of inspectors to try to guide workers through the protocol of handling the material.

The federal Emergency Management Agency and Environmental Protection Agency also were testing for asbestos and dioxin.

So far, three air samples showed "minimal or low" levels of cancer- causing airborne asbestos, said EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman. But a fourth sampling sounded the alarm by detecting significant levels of the material.

Mike Borello, director of an asbestos-testing firm in Midtown, said debris sampling that his firm did for several worried businesses near the site showed asbestos levels were less than 1 percent.

"The thing that surprised us was that we found fiberglass," Borello said, adding that fiberglass may be irritating workers' eyes and throats.
Copyright law is bad: infoAnarchy Pleasure is good: Origins of Violence
spread the word!
Hazard? (4.50 / 2) (#21)
by redelm on Thu Sep 13th, 2001 at 06:04:53 PM EST
(redelm at ev1 dot net) http://user.ev1.net/~redelm

IIRC, Asbestos has to be pretty free to cause a hazard. Asbestos in floor tiles is unlikely to ever get free. Asbestos mixed in with vermiculite in a fireproofing cement is also unlikely to very get free into the small fibers that cause damage.

Smoking is also a strong co-factor in asbestosis. 500,000 times increased risk IIRC.

I tend to believe the NY authorities who sampled the air & plume. Particulate analysis is normally done under a microscope as well as chemically, and free asbestos would stand out if it were present.

Finally, I believe the "no airconditioning" advice to be bad. Sure, the AC filters won't trap small particulates. They're not supposed to. But the cooling & condensing inside the evaporator coil is an extremely effective filter. Particulates act as condensation nucleation sites, and leave in the condensate.

Dust Clouds (4.75 / 4) (#20)
by Aztech on Thu Sep 13th, 2001 at 05:32:56 PM EST

Apparently by the time the second tower was constructed no asbestos was used because of the well known safety fears, also when there's been renovations over the years the asbestos has been removed from those relevant sections, after the 1993 bombing there was extensive renovations on the lower floors at the very least.

Certain methods of encapsulation were not designed with such consequences in mind, however there are methods of injecting the asbestos with polymers and essentially sealing the material, since this is part of the asbestos itself there is no reason to believe this method has failed.

However, given the great volume of asbestos that could have been used in these buildings it really doesn't bear thinking about, especially if this material was deeply embedded into the very structure of the building and never thought to be a threat. The North Tower (1 WTC) which was hit first and fell last is the one to be concerned about given its age.

Cryptome has more details on this threat and the various exemptions the Port Authority has from certain building and environmental codes.

Nonetheless, we shouldn't overlook the immediate human tragedy, much of which is still beyond our comprehension at this time, unfortunately it seems there won't be any communities throughout the world untouched by this.

The CNN ticker last night mentioned (4.66 / 3) (#18)
by ZanThrax on Thu Sep 13th, 2001 at 03:49:55 PM EST

that the EPA has been testing the plume and not found anything especially hazardous; they specifically mentioned two things they were checking for, but I would expect that they'd mention the presence of asbestos in the air. Personally, I'd be more worried about the effects of breathing all that powdered concrete. (Which is what most of that 'ash' had to be, imo)

Type of Asbestos ?? (4.20 / 5) (#15)
by Komodo321 on Thu Sep 13th, 2001 at 02:00:03 PM EST

There are several different minerals that are called asbestos; some are quite harmful while others are relatively benign. While there is reason for concern, without information on the type of asbestos, any calculations should be taken with a grain of salt.

Jade is another human description of a group of minerals; some are precious while others are semi-precious, almost common. Just imagine the value of this pound of Jade that Jack just bought for the bargain price of $100.

All dust can be harmful... (2.00 / 5) (#11)
by gordonjcp on Thu Sep 13th, 2001 at 08:59:07 AM EST

... but the solution is really simple.
Wait until it rains. You shouldn't have to wait long, at this time of year...

Already removed? (4.00 / 5) (#10)
by Znork on Thu Sep 13th, 2001 at 08:24:12 AM EST

If you read http://www.civil.usyd.edu.au/wtc.htm, it sounds like the asbestos might have been removed after the 1993 bombing. Its an interesting link either way, with much engineering information.

Asbestos (4.00 / 9) (#1)
by weirdling on Wed Sep 12th, 2001 at 07:42:51 PM EST

Asbestos really isn't a problem unless one suffers repeated or prolonged exposure. The other toxic substances used in buildings are a more immediate and pressing threat, but, fortunately, the very heat of the fire dealt with those for us.

Anyway, unless you take a sample home to breathe every day for the next twelve years, you haven't much to worry about. Many of the airborne dust particles from this catastrophe will cause similar problems, anyway. Asbestos needn't even be singled out.

So, I'm going to propose a radical idea: let's let Mayor Giuliani and his public health wonks assess the situation. Their response, according to a press conference last night? No danger.

I'm not doing this again; last time no one believed it.
Asbestos in the World Trade Center | 44 comments (40 topical, 4 editorial, 0 pending)
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