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Context of 'September 14, 2001: Majority of Dust Samples near Ground Zero Said Not to Contain ‘Levels of Concern for Asbestos’'

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With the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972, the scope of the National Contingency Plan (NCP) is extended to cover hazardous substance releases in addition to oil spills. (Environmental Protection Agency 12/23/2004) The NCP is a component of the US government’s National Response System, “a multi-layered system of individuals and teams from local, state, and federal agencies, industry, and other organizations that share expertise and resources to ensure that oil spill control and cleanup activities are timely and efficient” and that threats to human health and the environment are minimized. (Environmental Protection Agency 4/19/2004) When in effect, the plan is administered by the EPA, which is required by law to follow specific procedures and guidelines, including designating an “On-Scene Coordinator” (OSC), who is responsible for directing response efforts and coordinating all other efforts at the scene of a discharge or release. In the event that the EPA delegates any tasks to state or local authorities, the EPA is responsible for ensuring that the response is in accordance with EPA standards. (US Code, Vol. 40, sec. 300; Jenkins 7/4/2003 pdf file)

The EPA issues a final rule outlining new requirements for asbestos abatement projects. The rule notes that even at low concentrations, asbestos is not safe: “Available evidence supports the conclusion that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos…. This conclusion is consistent with present theory of cancer etiology and is further supported by the many documented cases where low or short-term exposure has been shown to cause asbestos-related disease…. Most occupational studies have been conducted on populations exposed to high airborne concentrations of asbestos for long periods of time. However, short-term exposures have also been shown to increase the risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma. In addition, there are many documented cases of mesothelioma linked to extremely brief exposures to high concentrations….” (Environmental Protection Agency 4/25/1986 pdf file; Jenkins 6/9/2002 pdf file; Kupferman 2003 pdf file)

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issues its Interim Asbestos NESHAP Enforcement Guidance on “Friable Asbestos,” which clarifies the definition and acceptable use of “asbestos-containing” materials. The National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), issued in 1973, defined “asbestos-containing materials,” or ACMs, as products that contain more than 1 percent asbestos by weight. Citing the original document, the guidance explains that NESHAP’s purpose was to “ban the use of materials which contain significant quantities of asbestos, but to allow the use of materials which would (1) contain trace amounts of asbestos that occur in numerous natural substances, and (2) include very small quantities of asbestos (less than 1 percent) added to enhance the material’s effectiveness.” However, the guidance stresses, the “EPA NESHAP definition of 1 percent by weight was not established to be a health-based standard.” (Stewart 4/18/1989 pdf file)

NESHAP regulations require use of the transmission electron microscopy (TEM) method to determine whether asbestos-derived wastes are asbestos free: “Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) shall be used to analyze the output material for the presence of asbestos.” In order to be considered “asbestos-free,” TEM results must indicate that the waste contains no asbestos. (US Code, Vol. 40, sec. 61.155) The TEM method is far superior to polarized light microscopy (PLM) testing, a less expensive method that is often used to test for the presence of asbestos in bulk building material. The PLM method is limited by relatively weak magnification (100-400x) and it is sometimes unable to distinguish asbestos material from other materials like tar and petroleum binding components that may also be present in the building material. As a result of these deficiencies, the PLM method cannot reliably detect asbestos at concentrations of less than 1 percent and it is incapable of detecting asbestos fibers that are less than .25 micrometers in width. (Jenkins 3/11/2002 pdf file) TEM uses 20,000X or greater magnifications as well as powerful chemical (EDXA) and mineralogical (SAEDP) tools. Not only can TEM differentiate asbestos from non-asbestos fibers, but it can also distinguish one species of asbestos from another. (International Asbestos Testing Lab 1/12/2006)

The EPA issues a pamphlet answering common questions on the Asbestos NESHAP regulations (see April 18, 1989). One question asks: “Is there a numeric emission limit for the release of asbestos fibers during renovations or demolitions in the asbestos NESHAP regulation?” The EPA answers that although there is no numeric emission limit, NESHAP “does specify zero visible emissions to the outside air from activity relating to the transport and disposal of asbestos waste.” In other words, if any emissions are visible during transport or disposal, the level of asbestos is unsafe. (Environmental Protection Agency 12/1990)

A study of the health effects of vermiculite mining, a mineral which is sometimes found with asbestos (as in the case of the vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana (see November 18, 1999)), finds that soils with an asbestos level of only 0.001 percent can result in air concentrations of 0.01 fibers per milliliter (f/mL), if disturbed. This exceeds the EPA cancer risk level of 0.000004 f/mL, the typical background levels of asbestos in outdoor air of 0.000002 f/mL, and the typical background levels in indoor air of 0.000003 f/mL (PCM). (Addison-Lynch 6/1995; Jenkins 3/11/2002 pdf file; Agency for Toxic Substances And Disease Registry 10/9/2003)

The current version of OSHA Regulation 1910.1001, “Polarized Light Microscopy of Asbestos—Non-Mandatory,” recommends the use of “transmission electron microscopy” (TEM) to test for the presence of asbestos instead of the older, less sensitive method, known as “polarized light microscopy” (PLM). The regulation notes that “TEM is a powerful tool to identify fibers too small to be resolved by light microscopy and should be used in conjunction with this method when necessary” and suggests that “when optical techniques [PLM] are inadequate, there is ample indication that alternative techniques [TEM and SEM] should be used for complete identification of the sample.” SEM, or “Scanning Electron Microscopy,” is another method that provides less analytical information about the asbestos fiber than TEM. (US Code, Vol. 29, sec. 1910.1001)

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that at least 192 deaths and 375 incidents of fatal lung disease in Libby, Montana were caused by exposure to tremolite asbestos from a nearby vermiculite mine. The mine was operated by the company W.R. Grace Co. for 30 years until it was sold in 1990 to Kootenai Development Co. (Schneider 11/18/1999)

Three days after the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported on asbestos contamination of homes in Libby, Montana (see November 18, 1999), the EPA dispatches an emergency response team to conduct tests to determine the level of asbestos contamination. For decades, local, state and federal agencies had ignored the known hazards at the Libby mine. (Schneider 2/2/2000; Schneider 9/15/2000) Twenty-three of the 73 outdoor air samples the EPA team will take at various locations in Libby are found to contain elevated levels of tremolite—a type of asbestos that is extremely carcinogenic due to its needle-like and sharply pointed fibers which easily penetrate the lining of the lungs. (Schneider 2/2/2000) Random air sampling inside the homes of Libby residents reveals that 11 to 23 percent of the selected homes have detectable levels of asbestos. The average level of asbestos inside Libby homes is found to be 0.0024 fibers per milliliter (f/mL), which exceeds many times the EPA cancer risk level of 0.000004 f/mL. (Jenkins 7/4/2003 pdf file)

The EPA posts a “questions and answers” page about asbestos and the EPA’s Libby investigation (see November 21, 1999) on its website. It includes only one question: “I recently read that EPA found less than 1 percent (or trace levels) asbestos at Fireman’s Park and other locations that were sampled. Is that a safe level?” The EPA responds that levels of “1 percent or less may be safe” under certain circumstances, but notes that it “could present a risk where there is enough activity to stir up soil and cause asbestos fibers to become airborne” (see 1995). (Environmental Protection Agency 6/18/2001)

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 2 office in Edison, NJ, dispatches three On-Scene Coordinators (OSCs) within minutes of the first plane crashing into the WTC Tower. (Meagher and Stapleton 10/21/2001) The OSCs are job functions specific to the National Contingency Plan (NCP) and therefore indicate that the NCP is in effect and that the EPA is acting under its authority. The OSCs will be involved in the agency’s response to the disaster at least until October 2002. (Environmental Protection Agency National Ombudsman 3/27/2002; Jenkins 7/4/2003 pdf file) But the EPA will imply in later statements and documents that the NCP had not been put into effect after the attacks (see August 21, 2003).

A dust sample is taken by EPA employees as they flee the collapsing buildings. The samples are later tested and found to contain an asbestos level of 4.5 percent. (France and Check 9/14/2001; Star Tribune (Minneapolis) 9/14/2001)

EPA Region 2 decides that it will use a benchmark of 1 percent in determining whether the asbestos level found in outdoor dust samples collected in and around the WTC site constitutes a “level of concern.” The figure apparently derives from the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) (see April 18, 1989), which defines products containing more than 1 percent asbestos by weight as “asbestos-containing materials” (ACM). The NESHAP one percent definition is not based on safety, but rather is the detection limit of the Polarized Light Method (PLM) for determining asbestos levels (see August 23, 1996 and see November 20, 1990). The EPA will be heavily criticized for selecting this percentage as its “level of concern” benchmark. Critics will argue:
bullet The one percent value is arbitrary because it is not based on safety. Furthermore, it was meant to be applied only to solid asbestos-containing products that do not release emissions (like dust).
bullet As the EPA has previously acknowledged, there is no safe exposure level to asbestos (see April 25, 1986) (see April 18, 1989).
bullet Measuring dust by percentage weight does not allow one to accurately assess the risk to public health because it does not determine the number of asbestos structures in a given area. For example, a sidewalk coated with 4 inches of dust containing .5 percent asbestos is much more of a health risk than a tablespoon’s worth of dust on the ground containing 2 percent asbestos because the former obviously has many more structures of asbestos. A person walking on the street would inhale more asbestos fibers walking through the 4 inches of asbestos-contaminated dust than stepping on just the tablespoon’s worth. (Jenkins 6/9/2002 pdf file) In fact, the EPA has previously acknowledged in an official statement to the public that levels “of 1 percent or less could present a risk where there is enough activity to stir up soil and cause asbestos fibers to become airborne” (see June 18, 2001). Additionally, a study in 1995 on the health effects of vermiculite found that soils with an asbestos level of only 0.001 percent can result in air concentrations of 0.01 fibers per milliliter, which exceeds many times the EPA cancer risk level of 0.000004 f/mL (see 1995) that corresponds to a cancer risk factor of 10

EPA Region 2 hires an industrial hygienist to test the lobby of its building at 290 Broadway St. for the presence of asbestos. The building is located 6 blocks northeast of the World Trade Center site. Some of the settled dust samples collected with a micro-vac and analyzed using transmission electron microscopy (TEM) reveal the presence of chrysotile asbestos. Light microscope tests are also used to analyze the dust, but these tests turn up negative. (Jenkins 3/11/2002 pdf file; Kupferman 2003 pdf file; Jenkins 7/4/2003 pdf file) Air monitoring also reveals the presence of asbestos:
bullet 20 s/mm (Environmental Protection Agency 7/15/2004 pdf file)
bullet 20 s/mm (Environmental Protection Agency 7/15/2004 pdf file)
bullet 60 s/mm (Environmental Protection Agency 7/15/2004 pdf file)
bullet 60 s/mm (Environmental Protection Agency 7/15/2004 pdf file) The discovery of asbestos at the building prompts EPA Region 2 to have the building professionally abated. (Jenkins 3/11/2002 pdf file; Kupferman 2003 pdf file; Jenkins 7/4/2003 pdf file) The EPA later states that micro-vac collection of dust samples (one of the preferred methods of obtaining samples) and TEM testing are not necessary for schools and residences in Lower Manhattan. At 105 Duane Street, the EPA will even discount results obtained by micro-vac collection and TEM tests when they contradict the agency’s own results (see December 3, 2001). (Office of US Congressman Jerrold Nadler 4/12/2002 pdf file; Carlton 5/9/2002 pdf file; Kupferman 2003 pdf file)

EPA and OSHA announce that the majority of air and dust samples monitored in New York’s financial district “do not indicate levels of concern for asbestos” and that ambient air quality “meets OSHA standards.” The two agencies also say that OSHA has new data indicating that indoor air quality in downtown buildings “will meet standards.” The agencies’ conclusions are based on samples taken on September 13. “OSHA staff walked through New York’s Financial District… wearing personal air monitors and collected data on potential asbestos exposure levels. All but two samples contained no asbestos.… Air samples taken… inside buildings in New York’s financial district were negative for asbestos. Debris samples collected outside buildings on cars and other surfaces contained small percentages of asbestos, ranging from 2.1 to 3.3—slightly above the 1 percent trigger for defining asbestos material.” (Occupational Safety and Health Administration 9/14/2001) But the EPA improperly implies that the one percent level is a safety benchmark (see (September 12, 2001)), even though it had previously acknowledged that airborne asbestos particles are unsafe at any level (see September 14, 2001). Furthermore, its test results are not accurate, as they are based on the outdated polarized light microscopy (PLM) testing method, which is incapable of identifying fine fibers and which cannot reliably detect asbestos when it is present in concentrations below one percent (see November 20, 1990).

EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman says with regard to Manhattan’s air quality, “[T]here is no reason for concern.” She says that her agency is regularly sampling airborne particles and that findings indicate that most locations have an asbestos level of less than one percent—the amount above which the EPA considers a material to be “asbestos-containing”—but notes that the highest recorded reading so far was 4.5 percent (see (Between 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. September 11, 2001)). (Kugiya 9/16/2001) But the EPA is wrong to use the one percent level as if it were a safety benchmark (see (September 12, 2001)). Furthermore, its test results are not accurate, as they are based on the outdated polarized light microscopy (PLM) testing method which is incapable of identifying fine fibers and which cannot reliably detect asbestos when it is present in concentrations below one percent (see November 20, 1990).

EPA Administrator Christie Whitman announces that results from further air and drinking water monitoring near the WTC site and the Pentagon indicate that there are few significant risks to public health. “We are very encouraged that the results from our monitoring of air quality and drinking water conditions in both New York and near the Pentagon show that the public in these areas is not being exposed to excessive levels of asbestos or other harmful substances,” she says. “Most” of the 62 dust samples taken by the agency contained less than one percent of asbestos. (Environmental Protection Agency 9/18/2001) The EPA incorrectly uses the one percent level of ambient asbestos as if it were a safety benchmark (see (September 12, 2001)). Moreover, the test results Whitman cites are based on the less sensitive and outdated polarized light microscopy (PLM) testing method which is incapable of identifying ultra-fine asbestos fibers and which cannot reliably detect asbestos when present in concentrations below one percent (see November 20, 1990). Whitman’s statement also observes that where asbestos levels have exceeded the EPA’s one percent “level of concern,” the “EPA has operated its 10 High Efficiency Particulate Arresting (HEPA) vacuum trucks to clean the area and then resample.” She adds that the trucks have also cleaned the “streets and sidewalks in the Financial District in preparation for… return to business.” (Environmental Protection Agency 9/18/2001) However, it is later discovered that the contractor hired to clean the streets failed to equip the vacuum trucks with the required HEPA filters. (Bazinet 8/14/2002; Kupferman 2003 pdf file)

EPA Administrator Christie Whitman assures New Yorkers that environmental conditions in Manhattan—both inside and outside—are safe, and provides a summary of the tests that have so far been performed on the city’s air and drinking water.
Water - Whitman says: “As we continue to monitor drinking water in and around New York City, and as EPA gets more comprehensive analysis of this monitoring data, I am relieved to be able to reassure New York and New Jersey residents that a host of potential contaminants are either not detectable or are below the Agency’s concern levels. Results we have just received on drinking water quality show that not only is asbestos not detectable, but also we can not detect any bacterial contamination, PCBs or pesticides.” She does say however that “following one rainstorm with particularly high runoff, we did have one isolated detection of slightly elevated levels of PCBs (see September 14, 2001).”
Outdoor air - Whitman says that outdoor air sampling does not indicate the existence of significant public health risks. This claim is based on results obtained using the outdated polarized light microscopy (PLM) testing method (see September 12, 2001) which is incapable of identifying ultra-fine fibers and which cannot reliably detect asbestos when present in concentrations below one percent (see November 20, 1990). Even though Whitman denies a significant risk to public health, she does say “seven samples taken at or near Ground Zero have had marginally higher levels of asbestos that exceed EPA’s level of concern,” and that her agency has “done a total of 101 dust samples, of which 37 were slightly over the one percent asbestos.” Whitman does not mention that the EPA’s “level of concern” is not a safety benchmark (see (September 12, 2001)) but rather the detection limit of the polarized light microscopy (PLM) testing method (see November 20, 1990).
Indoor air - Whitman claims, “New Yorkers and New Jerseyans need not be concerned about environmental issues as they return to their homes and workplaces.” But the EPA has no data indicating that indoor air is actually safe. The only indoor tests that have been conducted by the EPA were in the EPA’s Region 2 offices located in the Federal Building and a few neighboring buildings—and the results from several of these tests were positive for chrysotile asbestos (see September 13, 2001-September 19, 2001). (Environmental Protection Agency 9/21/2001; Office of US Congressman Jerrold Nadler 4/12/2002 pdf file)

Several government experts testify at a New York City Council meeting on environmental conditions following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. (Cardwell 11/1/2001) Kathleen Callahan, deputy regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), insists that New Yorkers living and working near the World Trade Center site are not in danger. “The vast majority of our tests find levels of these contaminants pose no significant long term health risks to residents, business employees and visitors beyond Ground Zero,” she says, repeating what earlier EPA statements have asserted. Downplaying the danger of those areas where higher asbestos levels have been found, she states—falsely (see April 18, 1989) (see October 3, 2001-March 1, 2004) —that “EPA and Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards are set many times below the level at which you would expect health impacts.” She advises New Yorkers who live or work in the affected areas to “follow the recommendations of the New York City Departments of Health and Environmental Protection on how to clean up properly (see September 17, 2001).” (Environmental Protection Agency 11/1/2001) Another expert, Dr. Jessica Leighton, assistant city health commissioner for environmental risk assessment, similarly states that people living and working in Lower Manhattan have little to worry about. She says in response to a question whether or not “people are safe at the present level” of contamination: “As far as the science has shown us right now, that is absolutely correct.” Like Callahan, she claims that EPA standards are overly protective. “The standards or tolerance levels that are being used are very conservative,” she claims. “For example, for asbestos, we are using the standard that is used for indoor air quality for reentry into a school after asbestos removal, which is the most stringent standard, as the tolerance level or standard for outdoor air quality in the residential areas. This is also true for other substances, such as dioxins, identified at the perimeter of the site…. Moreover, these standards have been designed to include many safety factors so that acceptable levels of exposure are far below the levels at which health effects are expected to occur.” (New York City Department of Health 11/1/2001) Joel Kupferman, executive director of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, questions the accuracy of Leighton’s and Callahan’s statements and accuses them of withholding some test results. (Cardwell 11/1/2001) Kathryn Freed, a New York City Council Member who represents Lower Manhattan, said she was not convinced by agency assurances, noting that firemen are already showing symptoms of emphysema, a terminal disease for which there is no cure. “Just because it doesn’t reach a certain level is really irrelevant when people are sick,” says Marc Ameruso, a member of the area’s community board. (Cardwell 11/1/2001)

The EPA will repeatedly claim that it does not have jurisdiction or oversight over indoor tests or cleanups of residences and businesses. Critics who disagree note that:
bullet The EPA’s response to the 9/11 attacks were coordinated under the authority of the National Contingency Plan (NCP) (see (8:50 a.m. EST) September 11, 2001), which requires that when the EPA delegates any tasks to state or local authorities, the agency ensures that their responses are in accordance with EPA standards (see 1972). Therefore, according to the NCP, the EPA does have jurisdiction over inside air.
bullet Shortly before the 9/11 attacks, the EPA commenced the abatement of homes in Libby, Montana where a nearby mining operation had contaminated the surrounding area (see (August 2001)). Libby asbestos remediation commenced under the authority of the National Contingency Plan (NCP). (Jenkins 7/4/2003 pdf file) In Libby, the highest level of asbestos found in a home was 3,658 structures per square centimeter (s/cm (Chatfield and Kominsky 10/12/2001 pdf file; Lyman 1/11/2002; Jenkins 7/4/2003 pdf file) In December, the EPA will “fast-track” the Libby site to a place on the National Priorities List as a Superfund site after a request from Montana’s governor (see December 20, 2001). In New York, Governor Pataki will make no similar request for the areas affected by World Trade Center collapse. (Kupferman 2003 pdf file; Jenkins 7/4/2003 pdf file)
bullet The EPA is taking responsibility for the indoor environmental conditions at numerous contaminated sites across the US, including at Herculaneum, Missouri; McFarland, California; and Kellogg, Idaho. (Congressional Office of Representative Jerrold Nadler 1/7/2002)
bullet The EPA has decontaminated more than 1400 homes and businesses in Illinois, Mississippi, and Ohio after the buildings were illegally sprayed with the pesticide methyl parathion (see January 1995) (see April 1997) (see November 1996).

Cate Jenkins PhD, a senior chemist in the EPA’s Hazardous Waste Identification Division, writes an open memo recommending that New York City residents who believe their apartments were contaminated as a result of the WTC destruction have their carpets and upholstery tested using the “Millette ultrasonication” test method, which she explains is far superior to the micro-vac method currently being recommended by the EPA. She also repeats her earlier criticism of EPA Region 2’s decision (see (September 12, 2001)) to use the 1 percent asbestos level as its “level of concern.” (Jenkins 6/9/2002 pdf file)

The EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) completes an interim report on the EPA’s response to the environmental disaster ensuing from the collapse and burning of the World Trade Center towers. (Herzfeld 3/20/2003) The EPA OIG’s final report will be released in August 2003 (see August 21, 2003).

The EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) releases its investigative report on the EPA’s response to the environmental consequences resulting from the collapse and burning of the World Trade Center towers. (Herzfeld 3/20/2003; Environmental Protection Agency 8/21/2003 pdf file) The report, titled, “EPA’s Response to the World Trade Center Disaster Collapse: Challenges, Successes, and Areas for Improvement,” concludes:
bullet The agency did not have sufficient data to support its claim that air in Lower Manhattan following September 11 was “safe to breathe” (see January 5, 2006).
bullet The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) “heavily influenced” the EPA’s press releases, minimizing the risk to public health. Selected emails analyzed by OIG “indicated that CEQ dictated the content of early press releases” (see (September 12, 2001-December 31, 2001)).
bullet The EPA does not have an adequate system for reviewing and approving the content of EPA press releases.
bullet The EPA misled the public by failing to acknowledge that “health standards do not exist” for the cumulative simultaneous impact of exposure to more than one toxin and that the synergistic effects resulting from these combinations are not well-understood.
bullet The EPA Region 2 incorrectly applied AHERA and NESHAP asbestos standards as safety benchmarks when in fact these referred to the detection limits of certain testing methods (see (September 12, 2001)).
bullet The EPA failed to consider the short-term impacts of acute exposure to various toxins.
bullet The EPA lacked sufficient data on 10 of the 14 “pollutants of concern” identified by scientists as possible components of the WTC dust and debris.
bullet The EPA based its assessments on a risk standard of 1-in-10,000 for only some of carcinogenic pollutants thought to be contained in the clouds instead of the 1-in-1,000,000 acceptable-risk standard. It also ignored the agency’s traditional reliance on the 1-in-100,000 level, which usually triggers corrective action.
bullet The OIG determined there is “no evidence that EPA attempted to conceal data results from the public.” However, EPA scientist Cate Jenkins provides evidence the EPA and the City of New York DEP did in fact alter and in effect, conceal data results (see July 15, 2004).
bullet The OIG finds that the EPA should have implemented the National Contingency Program (see 1972), which would have given EPA jurisdiction over other government agencies and control over the issue of indoor air contamination. Critics of this report will argue that the EPA had in fact implemented the NCP immediately after the attacks (see After November 1, 2001).

Cate Jenkins, a senior chemist in the EPA’s Hazardous Waste Identification Division, releases a memorandum arguing that “both EPA and NYC deliberately concealed, altered, falsified, and deleted data showing asbestos levels that both EPA and NYC declared unsafe.” (Environmental Protection Agency 7/15/2004 pdf file)

James Zadroga, a detective who worked on the recovery effort at Ground Zero following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, dies. Zadroga was 34. According to the first report into his death, by the Ocean County medical examiner, Zadroga dies from a “history of exposure to toxic fumes and dusts.” This is apparently the first death following a long-term illness related to work at the WTC site. (Fahim 4/12/2006)

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