NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Did Asbestos Ban Cost Lives?

November 21, 2001

Some scientists say that the reason the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed in a matter of minutes following the assault by two commercial airliners was the lack of asbestos in the building to retard the flames' progress.

In 1971, even as the World Trade Center was under construction, New York City banned the use of the fire retardant asbestos, amid concerns that it causes cancer.

  • The structures' supporting steel beams were coated with asbestos insulation to keep them from reaching temperatures above 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit -- at which point steel becomes soft -- up to the 64th floors, but was replaced by another fire retarding material further up the columns.
  • The Twin Towers were designed to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707 and a raging four-hour fire before the steel lost strength and collapsed, says chemistry professor Art Robinson in Access to Energy.
  • During those four hours, the buildings' designers believed workers below the fire level would escape, while those trapped above the fire would be plucked from the roof by helicopter.
  • However, Tower One collapsed one hour and 40 minutes after it was struck by the first airliner; Tower Two collapsed after 56 minutes of fire.

Although the fire-retarding material used in the upper floors was tested by Underwriters Laboratories up to the temperatures of ordinary fires and was found to have comparable fire retarding capability, the New York Times has noted that some experts think asbestos would have outperformed it at the higher temperatures reached by the burning jet fuel.

Asbestos has been shown to cause lung cancer in workers exposed to high levels for long periods of time during the manufacturing process; the Environmental Protection Agency now says casual exposure is not harmful.

Robinson and others say the asbestos ban was based on environmental "junk science" that exaggerated the danger, and thus may have cost lives.

Sources: Jon Dougherty, "WTC collapse due to environmentalism?" WorldNetDaily.com, November 20, 2001; James Glanz and Andres C. Revkin, "Haunting Question: Did the Ban on Asbestos Lead to Loss of Life?" New York Times, September 18, 2001; EPA Asbestos Fact Sheet.

 

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