“Did litigation and junk science help bring down the World Trade Center?” So asked attorney Andrew Schlafly this July in a speech before the annual meeting of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness. Sadly, and outrageously, the answer must be yes. On 9-11, these two pandemics contributed to the deaths of thousands of people who did not have to die.
The World Trade Center did not collapse because of structural weaknesses or design flaws. Both towers were designed to withstand – and initially withstood – the impact of the jet airliners. Almost everybody in the floors below the crash impact sites escaped because of the strength originally built into the towers.
But the towers didn’t stand long enough for the firefighters and other rescuers to make a safe way out for the survivors in the upper floors. Three-thousand people, including hundreds of rescuers, died as a result.
Why? After all, modern steel frame buildings are designed to survive these assaults. The popular belief is that burning jet fuel, in effect, “melted” the girders. Not exactly. The jet fuel remaining in the buildings burned off within a few minutes, according to the May 2002 “World Trade Center Building Performance Study” sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Structural Engineering Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE.
The steel used in constructing these buildings doesn’t burn. It does, however, lose half its strength if heated to usual fire temperatures in the range of 1,100 to 1,200 degrees F.
Even so, other buildings have withstood equivalent or even worse fires. The FEMA/ASCE study describes a 1991 fire that started on the 22nd floor of the 38-story One Meridian Plaza Building in Philadelphia. It burned uncontrolled for 11 hours and “completely consumed” the contents of nine floors. In 1988, a fired burned for over three hours in the 62-story First Interstate Bank in Los Angeles. Neither of these buildings collapsed.
Why did the WTC buildings collapse when other steel-frame buildings – with even more severe fires – survived? The answer: asbestos. The survivor buildings used asbestos for fireproofing the structural steel, whereas the collapsed WTC buildings – both the Towers and a smaller building, WTC Seven – used asbestos substitutes in the levels that burned.
So why did the WTC builders stop using asbestos? While the north tower was under construction, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of certain kinds of asbestos because of preliminary research findings that asbestos fibers breathed into the lungs caused a rare form of cancer (mesothelioma). Later, with the help of litigators, this ban essentially extended to include all forms of asbestos, including types very safe for humans but also damned because of their chemical relationship to the dangerous forms of asbestos (a form of chemical racism).
Unfortunately, the ban on asbestos resulted from junk science: studies that examined the relationships between exposure to asbestos and cancer, without adjusting for tobacco use. Non-smokers have only a minuscule risk of developing cancer. Further, asbestos coatings are harmless so long as they’re left undisturbed. Finally, some forms of asbestos are completely harmless to humans.
What gave this junk science its baleful power and set the WTC on its journey to disaster was a federal government ready and eager to regulate regardless of the facts – “junk regulation” – and a predatory legal profession determined to turn a minuscule peril into a source of endless income. Lawyers rushed to file lawsuits against anyone and any company remotely connected with asbestos, forcing construction workers to stop using this time-tested mineral, as well as forcing more than 60 companies into bankruptcy. The Economist magazine estimated the cost of this litigation at $200 billion, not including the loss of lives and property in the World Trade Center disaster.
As Schlafly says, “The simple fact is that no one at the EPA” or anywhere else “accurately studied the costs of banning asbestos.” We now know how high those costs have been. And they’re going higher as the trial lawyers sue for the damages and deaths they helped cause.
The World Trade Center fell to two kinds of terrorism – that of Osama bin Laden and that of the trial lawyers. At first, the comparison might seem obscene. But think a moment. Predatory lawsuits, and the fear of same, have distorted this nation’s economy and social fabric to the point where people are giving up on all kinds of activities, from free speech to medical practice.
And in the end, that’s what terror is about – turning people into fearful, suspicious, cringing creatures. As a matter of daily living, whom do you fear more? Jihadists or litigators?
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