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Environmental health: a low priority?


A primary problem early on, say officials who were there, was confusion about what kind of event it was: Was it a disaster scene or a public health emergency; was it a crime scene?


The nation was reeling from more than an environmental health disaster. Whether the event constituted an “act of war” or an “act of international terrorism,” as pundits argued that day, it was the worst assault on America’s soil in its history—a fact that made the scope of the environmental and public health challenges posed by the implosion of the buildings and continuing fires seem, at least for the moment, secondary.


It was in fact the worst international terrorist event in our nation’s history, involving four separate but coordinated air hijackings and the killing of more than 3000 people, including citizens of not just our nation but 78 different countries.


This event was not only a human disaster but a crime scene as well, making for special dynamics, because law enforcement agencies at all levels of government were involved. “Instead of the usual crowd control concerns of keeping on-lookers at a distance, these agencies were tasked with the arrest of anyone who did not follow instructions,” wrote Paul W. O’Brien for the University of Colorado. “This raised the level of urgency and seriousness to a much higher level than in many natural disasters.” (9)


So environmental and health officials and technicians had trouble getting clearance to get onto the site, say experts like Alison Geyh and Bruce Lippy. “The authority for Ground Zero changed ten times during the first few weeks before it became the purview of the Department of Design and Construction,” says Geyh.


“It was such a scramble early on, we just said ‘whoa,’ take a deep breath,’” says Lippy, who adds that the sheer effort of getting badged and approved was a challenge. “It was impossibly large, with 23 different entrances onto the site. There was the OEM orange badge, then getting through the FEMA documentation.”


Since authority for the site rested with uniformed services, the Fire Department as incident commander, and police as enforcers of crowd control and evidence collection, it was hard for people doing environmental health enforcement to do their jobs effectively.



Environmental health officials like McKinney say they faced difficulties enforcing health rules with fire department personnel. McKinney says he would flash his Health Department badge to warn them of the need to make sure that food being handled safely, or the need for garbage to be properly disposed of. Among the health problems were the presence of dust and waste everywhere, the greater potential for rats, he says.



Environmental health may have been overlooked in the early months because the media, by and large, focused on other, “bigger” themes related to terrorism, everything from the cultural and geopolitical issues surrounding the attacks—Islam and the Middle East—the immediate economic dislocation…


“But reactions varied from ‘okay’ to real anger,” says McKinney. “Cops are cops—they’re not used to that [being told what to do].”


Another main reason why environmental health may have been overlooked in the early months was that the media, by and large, focused on other, “bigger” themes related to terrorism, everything from the cultural and geopolitical issues surrounding the attacks—Islam and the Middle East—the immediate economic dislocation; the search and rescue operations; the process of criminal investigations and the suspects. In a paper on the patterns of media coverage of the terrorist attacks, Christine Rodrigue, (1) a geographer at California State University, identifies ten main themes—and environment is not one of them.


That’s surprising considering, at least on the local level, the physical environment around the World Trade Center had changed drastically—from giant piles of rubble strewn everywhere to trucks hauling debris to smoke and soot to empty buildings and displaced residents to the fact that it was difficult to breathe.

“For more than a year a profound split troubled New York journalists on how to cover and play this unfamiliar new threat,” according to a memo from the Society of Environmental Journalists on the issue. “One set of journalists was accused of being ‘alarmists’ pushing fear to raise ratings; another was accused of being lapdogs placidly accepting EPA reassurances. Good information was hard to find.”

Cleanup at Ground Zero.
Photo: Earl Dotter

At first, the media least concerned with reporting on the environmental impacts were the local New York City papers, as journalist Susan Stranahan points out in her piece, “Air of Uncertainty” in the American Journalism Review. (11)


“Not since the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania have reporters and government officials faced such an Everest-size task of communicating complex information to a frightened public,” wrote Stranahan. “All too often after 9/11, however, journalists simply accepted the party line from city, state and federal officials. With a few notable exceptions, the New York media took months to zero in on a story that touched the lives of thousands.”


The first to report on the environmental health aspects of the disaster were not The New York Times but national outlets such as Newsweek, MSNBC, CNN, and others. The first local reporter to flag discrepancies between official statements about health risks and independent studies showing otherwise, however, was Daily News reporter Juan Gonzalez, who would write a book about it, entitled “Fallout: The Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Collapse” (New Press, 2002).


While health and environmental issues should have been recognized as big issues, their full impacts didn’t emerge until later. Agencies really didn’t begin to manage these issues until about four weeks after the events took place in New York City. For example, disaster analyst Claire Rubin speaks of “the many problems and issues connected with the public management of health and environmental issues that began to emerge about four weeks after the attacks took place.”


But all these health effects were coming out as people already returning. Unfortunately, the “all clear” had already been given. What agency ever backpedals after it’s made a decision?


While there was plenty of “crisis intervention” for mental health in those early days and weeks following 9/11, there wasn’t a corresponding attention to environmental health.


Yet city officials readily admit that they recognized it as being, besides a catastrophe on many levels, also an environmental disaster. Immediately, New York City was calling upon public health experts at universities and in government for expertise on the environmental hazards at the Ground Zero site and the neighboring area. The range of hazards was astounding, from asbestos to heavy metals to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) arising from the fires.


Some would say later that environmental health was not accorded enough attention. While there was plenty of “crisis intervention” for mental health in those early days and weeks following 9/11 for people in the neighborhood, says health advocate Claire Barnett, director of the group Healthy Schools Network, there wasn’t a corresponding attention to environmental health.

"Stuyvesant High School should never have re-opened until the World Trade Center fires were out and the building completely cleaned and tested,” says Barnett, contributor to a book, Schools of Ground Zero, (12) published by Healthy Schools Network and the American Public Health Association. “That's what smart downtown law firms did. But they also had the money to make the smart choices.”


The local situation post 9/11 pointed up a larger national environmental issue, adds Barnett. “No one thinks of or plans for schools as children's workplaces; there is no system at any level of government to protect children from environmental hazards.”


Among the schools at Ground Zero, Stuyvesant took pains to test and clean its premises, after many contentious meetings between parents and school officials. But to this day, many schools in the area remain untested and uncleaned, say neighborhood advocates.


Stuyvesant parents and teachers were particularly concerned because their school stood directly across from a continuous stream of the trucks unloading hazardous World Trade Center debris en route to the landfill. The parent association hired its own consultant to test the air, who found it unacceptable.


On more than half the days between October 9th and February 2002, according to the consultant’s report, the level of respirable particulates, or dust, inside the school exceeded EPA guidelines for children; high levels of lead had also been found. (13)


Asked about the decision to site the barge there, DOH’s Kelly McKinney admits, “It wasn’t ideal” and that it triggered a lot of public protest “from an emotional standpoint.” Nevertheless, he adds, “looking at the challenge of moving 1.3 million tons of debris, sifting it and cleaning it, I don’t know how they did what they did. The job was done with low injuries and no fatalities.”


“Where else could we site it [the barge]?” says McKinney. “No I wouldn’t have wanted to live across from it, but we had guys inspecting to make sure tarps covered the trucks and there was a tremendous amount of data collected on the dust.”


However, the World Trade Center dust never quite settled in the public’s mind. “Environmental health issues were the ones that emerged and became more relevant and intense as time went on,” McKinney concedes.


Neighborhood resident Kim Todd survived the blast but lived to endure a shot of ailments connected to breathing the air and dust. Her case is unusual in that she breathed the high particulate counts of September 11 and 12 found in evidence that day. But how many others that weren’t evacuated also suffered? And in retrospect, did the city give the all-clear to return prematurely?


“I am extremely reluctant to criticize what anyone did in the first few days,” says Phil Landrigan. It was an unprecedented disaster for which the city could never have been prepared.” However, the leadership over the next few weeks and months for health and safety should have addressed public and occupational health far better than it did, he argued.


Like many, he acknowledges that the responses to the attacks on the World Trade Center involved, as he put it, “extraordinary heroism.”


“They demonstrated the ability of the American health care system and of individual public health workers to respond magnificently to an unprecedented crisis,” wrote Landrigan, remarks in a paper, The Aftermath of September 11th- Lessons Learned for Public Health.”


Nevertheless, the environmental response, he argues, “underscored deep problems in the nation’s public health infrastructure.”




1) An early number given 10,000 -- Early number given by U.S. Rep. Jim Moran of the possible dead in the World Trade Center. An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 might have been in or near the center's twin towers when they were hit by hijacked jetliners Tuesday morning. How many of them escaped before the 110-story buildings collapsed soon after remained unknown.









(5) http://www.ochealthinfo.com/newsletters/whatsup/2001/01-11.pdf

(6)EPA Response to 9-11, Pentagon Environmental Monitoring Summary


(7)     Klitzman, Susan, and Freudenberg, Nicholas, “Implications of the World Trade Center Attack for the Public Health and Health Care Infrastructures,”  American  Journal of Public Health. 2003; 93: 400-406

(8)     U.S. State Department,  http://usinfo.state.gov/topical/pol/terror/01100304.htm October 3, 2001

(9)     Paul W. O’Brien, Institutional Warning Response Following the
September 11th World Trade Center Attack, Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center University of Colorado http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/qr/qr150/qr150.html

(10)  Rodrigue, Christine, “Patterns of Media Coverage of the Terrorist Attacks on the United States in September of 2001.” http://www.nyu.edu/icis/Recovery/pubs/rodrigue-update01.pdf

(11)  Stranahan, Susan, “Air of Uncertainty,” American Journalism Review http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=2746

(12)  Schools of Ground Zero: Early Lesson Learned in Children’s Environmental Health, by Sarah Bartlett and John Patrarca, a joint publication of the American Public Health Association and Healthy Schools Network, 2002. 

(13)  Schools of Ground Zero, p. 28.


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