Bulletin Board
Rants, Raves, Interesting Science & Awful Puns
May 31, 2002

WTC Collapse

The Contribution Of Enviro Fanaticism

I haven't posted anything on the September 11 event, because with seemingly everyone in the world airing opinions of every conceivable stripe, there didn't seem much to add. I get a bit irked, though, at listening to the architects and engineers being criticized on the grounds that "They should design buildings that can take things like that." Well, they did. Both towers withstood the impacts as they were supposed to. What brought them down was the fire. And it turns out that the designers had done a professional and competent job of providing against that eventuality too, but their work was negated by over-hasty, paranoid bureaucracy being pushed by typical environmentalist junk science.

I'm grateful to Michael Sisson for drawing my attention to (1) A briefing of the Nevada Policy Institute and (2) A commentary from Dr. Arthur Robinson's newsletter Access to Energy which tell the story.

The structural steel used in skyscrapers loses most of its strength when red hot. To provide thermal protection, buildings like the Empire State and others from that era enclosed the steel support columns in a couple of feet of concrete. This was effective but it added a lot of weight and cost, while also consuming a substantial amount of interior space. In 1948, Herbert Levine developed an inexpensive, lightweight, spray-on insulation composed of asbestos and rock wool, which played a key part in the postwar office-tower construction boom. Buildings using it would tolerate a major fire for 4 hours before structural failure, allowing time for evacuation below and airlift by helicopters from the roof for those trapped above.

By 1971, when the two WTC towers were being built, the country was being beset by various environmentalist scare campaigns, one of which was the demonization of asbestos?since shown to have been wildly exaggerated, with not a shred of evidence that insulating buildings with asbestos was harmful to human health. When the use of asbestos was banned, Levine's insulation had already been installed in the first 64 floors. The newer lightweight construction didn't permit traditional heavy concrete insulation for the remaining 54 floors, and so a nonasbestos substitute was jury-rigged to complete the buildings. On studying the arrangement, Levine said, "If a fire breaks out above the 64th floor, that building will fall down." He was right.

In this connection, it's also interesting to recall that the O-ring failure that was finally pinpointed as the cause of the Challenger shuttle disaster occurred with the first use of a replacement for the original sealant putty, well suited to the task, that had been used safely in all prior shuttle missions and 77 successful Titan III rocket launches. So why was it replaced? Under EPA regulations it had to be phased out because it contained asbestos?as if astronauts are going to climb out of a spacecraft and start snorting it. Isn't it nice to know that our health and safety are in concerned and capable hands?

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