Asbestos Fireproofing Might Have Prevented World Trade Center Collapse

By Steven Milloy
January 18, 2007,

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.

Steven Milloy publishes and He is a junk science expert , an advocate of free enterprise and an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute .

15 thoughts on “Asbestos Fireproofing Might Have Prevented World Trade Center Collapse”

  1. Neal, if you wish to spout ignorance, please feel free. On another board. You are just showing that you don’t understand the issues. These aren’t black and white issues where Captain Planet comes out to stop Sam Sludge from destroying the environment for the heck of it.

    These are products that are banned due to overreaction. DDT does not destroy ecosystems, and it does not cause eggshell thinning, as was proven scientifically (and ruled by a federal judge) right before the EPA banned it by executive order.

    Asbestos is similar. While there are some types that do cause cancer, it’s based on the shape of the fiber, so most types do not, and exposure is hardly deadly. A blanket, knee-jerk ban caused damage by weakening our fireproofing. Admitting that does not make one evil.

    In either case, you CAN make an argument that more lives would have been lost if the decision had been made the other way. That’s a valid point. Though I doubt you would win on DDT, you can very well argue that a better form of fireproofing was available fot the WTC without asbestos. However, you lecture like we are halfwitted children while exposing your ignorance of the details of the subject matter. This does no one any good.

  2. My wife’s best friends father was the last in his mine to die of asbestosis. Ironic that it may have been able to save the twin towers, but there’s no doubt as to it’s deadliness.

  3. Coal has low levels of radiation and other poisons which effect billions around the world. Many more than are effected by other polutants…
    DENNIS… “The subtitle of “Eco-Freaks” is “Environmentalism is hazardous to your health” – …”tragic” DDT ban, (DDT destroys the food chain especially when over-used)
    The collapse of the levees in New Orleans (Politics and greed made the walls to short)
    …the modern environmental movement continues to use fear to advance its dubious and potentially deadly agenda. (WARS ARE DEADLIER THAN ANYTHING YOUR FEARS COULD EVER IMAGINE! WHAT IS IT LIKE IN BACKWARDS WORLD?)

    Thank you so much for putting it together. I wonder how many other people have died so the “environmental terrorist” could claim they are saving the earth. They make the great mass murderers of time look like small time thugs. March on logic, correct facts and common sense.

  4. So you aren’t dying from cigarettes, cool, but they still cost you many thousnads of dollars sopporting a deadly habit and an industry that adicted you. As for idiots taking scientific research and running the wrong way with it does not besmerch the science.
    Crime bosses don’t vote, they buy their way into power. They aren’t part of this conversation, accept in that lack of over-sight promoted by bad politics makes room for these inequitiesbecause they defunding and firing whistle blowers, etc. Something that the a-patriotic, mega-corporations are so apt to do.

  5. The author Peter Maas claimed that the second tower had only half the fireproofing specified in order to improve profits. He claimed this was told to him by a organised crime boss. The idea was there would be less scrunity on the second tower and it would never make any difference. Perhaps the mob was just being GREEN.

  6. Neal,

    China? Corporate benefit? Apparently you have forgotten that China is a COMMUNIST country that does not have free elections and whatever is done there is done based on what the RULING PARTY wants done. If a corporation is allowed to pollute it is because the GOVERNMENT wants the corporation producing whatever it is producing. This has little to do with Free Enterprise or Capitalism and everything to do with authoritarian or FASCIST government that OWNS EVERYTHING and wants their benefits maximized. Who knows, they may even want to improve the average living conditions for their people and are willing to damage their country for a while to build the technology and infrastructure that can deliver a higher standard of living.

    As far as asbestos, you really need to do some research. If asbestos was generally as dangerous as you seem to think the towns built on top of rocks containing asbestos would be unliveable. The towns where the mining and processing are done would be graveyards. Yes, under specific conditions asbestos would seem to be able to cause cancer. Of course, I am old enough to have helped my father change ASBESTOS brake shoes and get other alledgedly dangerous exposures to asbestos before we were told to wear filters. I also smoked for 17 years. Neither my late father nor myself or my brother have any hint of cancer and we are about 60 years old. It ain’t as simple as bozos like you make it out to be.

    One of the best laughs I got while living in San Francisco was the decision to destroy some old asbestos contaminated buildings at the local university. Thousands of people went down and watched, without holding their breath or using respirators, the demolition of those buildings!!!!! Yup, asbestos is really dangerous dude, if removed from insulating your buildings!!!!

  7. Neal,

    You can’t even spell “asbestos” so I doubt you are very knowledgable on the subject. A few points: (1) Asbestos already persists in the environment since it is a natural mineral, (2) Yes, asbestos can cause long cancer, but there are many, many forms of asbestos and many forms are pretty safe, and (3) it’s only dangerous if you breathe the dust. The guys who are having lung problems as a result of dust exposure after 911 would be in exactly the same boat they are in today, assuming the towers would have fallen.

  8. Oh, and what would the effects on New York been if the rain of many tons of aspestos fell over the millions of New Yorkers, thus creating cancers in them. The first responders and others are now dying because of the inhailed dust that they breathed during rescue and clean up. How much worse could it have been?

  9. …and if aspestos, THAT CAUSES LUNG CANCERS was still allowed to persist in our environment as it did before, how many people in America would have died from it? A lot more than the 3,000 that died on 9/11. Also, the damage from the plane impacts may have not been any different. You people from the anti-environmental groups, supported by mega-corps have a dangerous agenda of profit over health. Their many regulations that go way over-board, but to side on the possibility that your children will benifit from under-mining our shared environment can obviously be seen in CHINA today. Google China smog images and see if deregulation for corporate benifit is the best way forward…

  10. The W.R. Grace Co. (which I assume their product was used on the World Trade Center) was forced to discontinue the use of Vermiculite, whcih is an outstanding fire proofing material; because the Libby Montana vermiculte mine was found to contain a small percent of asbestos, discontinued the use of Libby, Mont. vermiculite. The W.R. Grace Co. then changed their formula for their fireproofing product to gypsum, (a very good fireproofing material) and their other ingrediant called “cellulose” which is nothing but ground up newspapers. They were also able to pass one of the UBC tests. And marketed this product as “steel fireproofing “. IF the architec has specified a product called Monocote, an English Co. which at one time had a plant in Houston Texas; I am positive the towers would not have collapsed! A high rise in London was hit by an airplane, with minimal damage. I am not a chemist, but sold fireproofing for several companies, and feel I know what I am talking about. The very best fireproofing materials used to protect steel, have always been made of gypsum, cement, vermilite, and to some degree asbestos. I once visted the aftermath of a fire in a lumber/building material yare, where everything was burned EXCEPT a pile of vermiculte; where only the outside paper sacks were burnt and the vermiculite was in perfect conditionj. (The Mandoval Co. used vermiulite from an South American mine that contains no asbestos.

  11. A timely reminder of the foolishness, and danger, of letting eco-freaks rule the roost. Everyone wants to live in a clean environment but ALL the facts have to be put on the table before decisions are made. I wonder how Selikoff and Monti feel about this? It would be interesting to hear their viewpoint (if they are still around), especially on the fact that the fireproofing specifications were changed before adequate testing had been concluded.

  12. 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.

    Thank you so much for putting it together. I wonder how many other people have died so the “environmental terrorist” could claim they are saving the earth. They make the great mass murderers of time look like small time thugs. March on logic, correct facts and common sense.

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