Asbestos Fireproofing Might Have Prevented World Trade Center Collapse

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I suggested in this column on Sept. 14, 2001 that many lives could have been saved if asbestos fireproofing been used in the World Trade Center.

Though controversial at the time, my view has gained in validity since then, according to “Eco-Freaks” (Nelson Current, 2006), a new book by John Berlau.

Berlau, a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (a think-tank with which I am affiliated), details in one chapter of “Eco-Freaks” the series of events leading up to the decision to stop using asbestos fireproofing in the WTC and the post-Sept. 11 testing of the WTC-type fireproofing by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Well after construction began on the WTC towers, the campaign of Mount Sinai Hospital’s Irving Selikoff to scare the public about asbestos reached World Trade Center construction manager Rino Monti, who became worried in May 1970 that office workers might be exposed to asbestos from air passing over exposed asbestos fireproofing that had been sprayed on to the buildings’ structural steel.

Selikoff and Monti pushed for asbestos substitutes, vouching for their safety and effectiveness – even though the substitutes had barely been tested against fire, according to WTC documents from the 1970s.

Although Monti ordered basic testing of the substitute fireproofing materials by Underwriters Laboratory, he apparently didn’t wait for the testing to be complete before they were used in the WTC towers – that’s according to a report on the WTC collapse by the Commerce Department’s NIST.

As a result, asbestos fireproofing was only used up to the thirty-eighth floor of the first WTC tower and not at all in the second. Continuing asbestos hysteria eventually resulted in much of the asbestos eventually being ripped out of the first tower.

Berlau recounts how the effectiveness of asbestos fireproofing was proven during an intense Feb. 13, 1975 fire that burned for more than three hours in the elevator and utility shafts from the ninth to nineteenth floors of the first WTC tower – an area where asbestos fireproofing was still intact at the time. Despite the fire’s intensity – it burned nearly everything, including telephone panels and wiring, and got hot enough to blow out windows – the asbestos fireproofing contained the fire so that it did minimal damage to the rest of the building.

A subsequent fire analysis report from an engineering firm noted that the fire, “while reported in the press to have been very hot, did not damage a single primary, fireproofed element.”

Berlau’s report of the post-Sept. 11 fireproofing testing by NIST underscores the chilling possibility that the Sept. 11 WTC building collapses may have been delayed if not preventable had asbestos fireproofing been used.

Despite the huge fireballs caused by the two planes crashing into the WTC towers each with 10,000 gallons of jet fuel, the fireballs didn’t explode or create a shock wave that would have resulted in structural damage, according to a follow-up report by the Federal Emergency Management Administration. NIST’s report says that the steel didn’t melt as the temperature in the WTC towers never rose above 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (steel melts at 2,750 degrees). Steel will, however, start to bend and buckle at temperatures as low as 600 degrees if the fireproofing is inadequate.

The NIST report concludes that, “The WTC towers would likely have not collapsed under the combined effects of the aircraft impact damage and the extensive, multi-floor fires that were encountered on September 11, 2001, if the thermal insulation had not been widely dislodged.”

So how do we know that asbestos fireproofing likely would have performed better than the non-asbestos fireproofing?

Post-Sept. 11 testing by NIST indicates that the original testing of the non-asbestos fireproofing was wildly inaccurate. In simulations by NIST, the non-asbestos fireproofing was far inferior to asbestos in terms of melting points and ability to keep fire from spreading.

“Some of the non-asbestos fireproofing probably just burned off,” writes Berlau.

When the non-asbestos fireproofing was attached to a steel pushrod to simulate the steel columns at the WTC and exposed to fire, NIST found that as the temperatures increased, all the non-asbestos fireproofing shrank and lost contact with the pushrod before reaching maximum test temperature. Another set of tests indicated that the thermal conductivity of non-asbestos fireproofing was much higher than asbestos “spreading heat to the vulnerable steel,” Berlau reports.

NIST was not able to test the original asbestos fireproofing because it is no longer available, “but we know – from more than a century of fire tests – that asbestos almost certainly would have performed better,” writes Berlau. Part of that knowledge, of course, comes from the 1975 WTC fire which appears largely to have been contained by asbestos.

The irony is that there is no evidence that anything was gained in terms of health benefits by not using asbestos fireproofing. The original concerns that indoor air would be contaminated by passing over asbestos fireproofing were unfounded. City University of New York mineralogy professor Dr. Arthur Langer told Berlau that the sort of asbestos spray originally used on the WTC was tested at airports in the 1990s.

“This stuff was so damn good that this stuff did not release fibers – even with the vibrations from the airplanes and so forth,” Langer said.

The subtitle of “Eco-Freaks” is “Environmentalism is hazardous to your health” – a point Berlau backs up with chapters on the tragic DDT ban, the collapse of the levees in New Orleans and others. It’s a point that we should all take to heart as the modern environmental movement continues to use fear to advance its dubious and potentially deadly agenda.