Title Page Previous Next Contents | Part 3. Was environmental health protected on 9/11? Whistleblowers, watchdogs and wee little people >Conclusion



Photo: Andrea Booher/FEMA News Photo

The twin towers left a long, dark shadow. And their shadow gets longer every day.


It was sad enough that so many thousands of innocent lives were lost in the September 11th terrorist attacks. What is also saddening is that, a full two years after these events, so many survivors are still suffering health repercussions, many as a result of pollution-related causes.


Women pregnant and living in the proverbial shadow of those events have been found to give birth to smaller babies. Workers on the pile are still suffering a host of ailments. And stalwart residents of Lower Manhattan—though many have left—still complain of respiratory and other ills. Some, like Kim Todd, speak with unease about the illnesses that plagued rescue dogs and other dogs living in the area. One famous rescue dog, “Bear,” died. “A lot of dogs have gotten cancer and died,” she adds, recalling her own dog Rigsby’s death.


Pregnant women exposed to air pollution from the World Trade Center attacks, according to a preliminary study released in August 2003, apparently face double the risk of delivering babies up to a half-pound smaller than babies born to women not thus exposed. And other studies that have come out in the time since the terrorist attacks show that workers continue to suffer pulmonary problems.


Hazards thought to be negligible at one time, in some quarters, are turning out to have long-lasting effects. The New York City Fire Department reported that a year since the terrorist attacks, several hundred members were still suffering from respiratory problems. Even firefighters who answered the call to assist in the recovery effort from across the country returned home with lasting pulmonary and other medical problems.


“We’re still hearing about people being sick,” says Anthony Sutton, director of emergency management in Westchester County, N.Y., just north of the city. “There are a lot of stories.”


“We probably would not still be discussing many of the issues [still being raised] had a vigorous and proactive risk communication strategy been implemented following 9/11.”



Ohio Senator George V. Voinovich, at a hearing on the EPA and FEMA response to September 11, expressed outrage when the Ohio Task Force of the Urban Search and Rescue teams told him how badly afflicted firefighters were. I am outraged that no one seems to be managing the effort to provide information and health care to these workers,” said Sen. Voinovich. “The Captain of the Ohio Task Force told me last week that if I could figure out who was in charge of disseminating health data then I should be President!” (22)


Kelly McKinney defends his Department of Health, saying that it brought in as much expertise as it could. “The range and magnitude of technical expertise brought to bear on health and safety issues at Ground Zero was unprecedented, and I believe, fully sufficient to the task.”


However, he admits that “we probably would not still be discussing many of the issues [still being raised] had a vigorous and proactive risk communication strategy been implemented following 9/11.”


Officials acted like technicians, “talking too much with each other and not enough with everyone else,” he says. “We acted like research scientists with our heads buried in the data discussing technical details among ourselves instead of talking, and listening, to the concerned public.  We did not immediately speak to the real health effects that workers, residents and others were experiencing. We were probably more arrogant than was justified by the data and over
confident about what the results meant.  We practiced good science but bad humility, and bad empathy and bad communications.”  


“Having said all that would I change our basic recommendations and conclusions about these issues? Probably not.”


Survivors of the environmental health ‘fallout’ in New York argue that the agencies’ claims that the pollution episodes in New York won’t produce short or long term effects have already been proven wrong.


“Much of the concern has died down,” says Jenna Orkin, on the steering committee of the 9/11 Environmental Action Group in New York, “but you still hear lots of cases—children coming down with new onset asthma, restrictive airway diseases or weird ailments like a kid who was exposed to dust that got a spinal illness. Whether there will be more cancers is everyone’s worry, but I’d like to be wrong.”

So far, The New York Times reported in August 2003, researchers haven’t turned up cases of “significant harm” to those who breathed the air around ground zero, even though it contained increased levels of benzene, lead, mercury, PCB's, asbestos and fiberglass. The newspaper cites the one preliminary study which found a slight but significant increase in the percentage of smaller than usual infants born to pregnant women who were at or near the site around the time of the attack.

But studies are far from over—about 70 health studies are now underway of workers and residents – and even dogs --  touched by the environment at Ground Zero.


The city recently launched its health registry to determine if such ailments continue to persist—or if other long-term ailments have cropped up. This is a source of anger in the Ground Zero neighborhoods because residents argue that a registry started two years after the fact won’t be accurate. There is some early data, however. Early on, in October 2001, the NYC Department of Health and CDC conducted a door to door survey of residents of Battery Park City and two other areas near the attack site and found that almost 40 percent of those sampled showed post-traumatic symptoms, while 50 percent of those sampled were still experiencing symptoms to be expected from smoke inhalation and from the still burning fires. (23)


Meanwhile, however, a recent poll of downtown residents shows that health ailments related to September 11th remain. According to Blum and Weprin, 30 percent of residents responding who lived Downtown before 9/11 said someone in their household suffers from coughing, respiratory problems, or some other ailment which they believed to have been caused by the World Trade Center debris. As for new residents, 25 percent answered yes to this question.


The health toll for workers is, of course, much worse. In New York City, the terrorist attacks have triggered a flood of legal claims by workers against the city, according to a report released by City Comptroller Bill Thompson in June 2003. Firefighter claims against the city increased more than 20-fold last year due to the World Trade Center disaster.


Where only 171 members of the uniformed services sued the city in the prior year, in the fiscal year 2002, the number of lawsuits ballooned to 1,194. By far, most of the lawsuits were filed by firefighters, many of whom sought compensation from the city for illnesses suffered after work at the World Trade Center site. “Because of the time that was spent over at Ground Zero and the work that was done, there are a number of people that are saying they are suffering, whether it's respiratory problems or other problems, as an after-effect of the work that was done there and what they felt was inadequate equipment that didn't protect them fully,” said Thompson. (24)


Dr. Kerry Kelly, chief medical officer of the New York City Fire Department testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works committee that firefighters were severely disabled by their service at Ground Zero. Although 90 percent of the force were afflicted by cough within the first few days, as many as 500 may still have persistent respiratory disabilities. “Clearly, our recovery did not end with the closing of the site,” he testified.


At the same hearing, Ohio Senator George V. Voinovich voiced his dismay that the country’s stewards of environmental health let workers and neighborhood residents down.  Beyond his outrage over the health effects on firefighters, Voinovich said he was equally upset that the EPA gave premature reassurances regarding health risks and exposure to the workers and the residents around the World Trade Center.


Knowing what we know now, the statements from EPA last fall were inaccurate and ambiguous at best,” said Voinovich.  “What is important today is that people exposed last year receive clear guidance from the federal government as to their long-term health risks.  Their doctors need to know what to look for and what to expect…We cannot afford to allow misleading statements about air quality to be made in the future.”