updated 8/18/2004 1:34:17 PM ET 2004-08-18T17:34:17

The Bush administration showed "reckless disregard" for public health after the World Trade Center collapse by failing to warn people of the health risks of breathing toxic smoke and dust at ground zero, an environmental group said Wednesday.

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Hundreds of people were sickened because of mistakes made by the government during the recovery and cleanup effort following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, the Sierra Club said in a report on the environmental and health impacts of the collapse.

"The federal government should have a duty to protect the public from the aftermath of an attack such as this," said Suzanne Mattei, the report's author. "What happened instead is that the harm was prolonged."

The Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday it was reviewing a summary of the report and declined to comment further.

Report cites 12 safety failures
According to the report, the EPA failed at least a dozen times to change its safety assurances about the air quality at ground zero, even after it became clear that people were becoming sick, and in some cases, did not even check for toxic hazards.

Last year, the EPA's internal watchdog found the agency, at the urging of White House officials, gave misleading assurances there was no health risk from the dust in the air after the towers' collapse. Seven days after the attack, the EPA announced that the air near the site was safe to breathe, but the agency did not have enough information to make such a guarantee, the EPA's report found.

Mattei accused the Bush administration of ignoring the potential health risks because of political expediency.

"They wanted to reopen the stock exchange in Lower Manhattan as quickly as possible and I think they wanted to put forth the image that everything was OK," she said.

The Bush administration ignored studies about the toxins emitted by the demolition and incineration of large structures such as the trade center, the report said, and should have issued a warning immediately after the attacks about the hazards of inhaling the air there.

Safety not enforced at ground zero
Many rescue and recovery workers at the disaster site didn't wear respirator masks because of conflicting assurances about air quality, the report stated, and it claimed that the Bush administration refused to enforce worker safety requirements at ground zero.

As part of its criticism, the Sierra Club also cited a little known study in the July 2002 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine that compared the health of federal employees working five blocks north of ground zero to their colleagues in Dallas.

The study found that employees at the Department of Health and Human Services who were indirectly affected by the trade center collapse "were more than likely to report constitutional symptoms" such as eye, nose and throat irritation and headache, than those in Dallas.

"The Bush administration has learned nothing from the illnesses and hardships suffered by the ground zero community," Mattei said. "Rather, it plans to perpetuate them in any future national disaster anywhere else in the United States."

The Sierra Club report also called on the government to continue to vigorously clean up businesses and residences around the trade center site; fund long-term medical monitoring of people exposed to smoke and dust at ground zero; better enforce safety regulations at disaster sites; and to work with community, labor and environmental groups to develop a national plan to inform the public of health risks following a terrorist attack.

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