Paul Krugman, a staff columnist for the New York Times, devoted his August 26 column to a report that the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency had charged that the EPA had given in to White House pressure to not warn New York City residents about the health risks they faced as a result of air pollution caused by the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Krugman cited a draft report that said huge amounts of pollution had been released, notably dioxins, which he said could cause cancer, birth defects and damage the nervous system.
He said the report had concluded that despite the dioxin concentrations having likely been the highest ever reported, little harm had been done “because the outdoor air cleared after a couple of months.” But he criticized the White House for allegedly directing the EPA not to warn the public about “the main danger”? the dust that had seeped into buildings, contaminating carpets, furniture and air ducts. This was based on a report by Salon, an Internet publication, that said some businesses had found “alarming levels” of dioxins, asbestos and other “dangerous pollutants” in their buildings and that this could be causing chronic health problems for thousands of residents.
An EPA spokesman in New York told AIM that neither Salon nor Krugman had checked this claim with the EPA. He said they not only advised people to clean their offices and apartments, but they even helped them do it. He also said that the measured levels of the dioxin and asbestos were not very high. Krugman focused on the danger of dioxin, which was so feared twenty years ago that the Centers for Disease Control ordered the evacuation of a small Missouri town when it was found that oil contaminated with dioxin had been sprayed on its dirt roads.
A few years later, the CDC reassessed the danger of dioxin, and on August 15, 1991, the lead headline on the front page of the New York Times read, “U.S. Officials Say Dangers of Dioxin Were Exaggerated.” Dr. Vernon Houk, who had recommended the evacuation of the town, admitted it was a mistake. He and other health authorities were backing away from the position that dioxin “is toxic enemy No. 1.” The story said that some experts considered exposure to it was no more risky than spending a week sunbathing.
Dioxin was a contaminant in agent orange, a defoliant used in Vietnam. The troops who were exposed to it most of all were Air Force personnel who sprayed it. The Air Force tracked them for 20 years and found no evidence that they were less healthy or had a higher rate of mortality than those who were not exposed to agent orange.
A 1949 accident at a Monsanto chemical plant that released dioxin caused over a hundred workers to have a rash, nausea, headaches, blood disorders, and liver abnormalities temporarily, but these disappeared. But there was no increase in the death rate. An explosion at a plant in Italy in 1976 exposed thousands to high levels of dioxin. Several hundred got the rash and some liver and blood abnormalities, but again it was temporary and there was no rise in mortality.