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

Local mistrust

 

Months before, many had decided to move out, some on the advice of doctors. A former resident of Battery Park, Steve Swaney, for example, moved because of his wife’s respiratory ailments and his own anxieties. “You can’t tell me or people in this neighborhood that there’s nothing in the air,” he said at the time. “Anybody with a kid still living down here is nuts.” So few children were left in the complex that the day care center was on the verge of closing.

 

Congressman Nadler charged that EPA had “created a full-scale crisis of public confidence.”


Another New Yorker, Diane Miller, who up until recently lived in a co-op apartment two blocks away from the disaster site, delayed returning to her home in the financial district. She considered herself one of the fortunate, having friends who could loan her places to stay while the dust settled.  An asthmatic and mother of an infant boy, she said, “I don’t need to have an official designation of whether it’s safe or not. If I’m in a place with bad air and I’m coughing all the time, I leave,” said Miller.

 

Yet many thousands returned to their homes and offices, because the official word was that the environment was totally safe.

 

Four months after the disaster, noted the Congressional Research Service, in a report entitled Federal Disaster Policies after Terrorist Strikes, “residents and workers in the area continued to report respiratory difficulties and related problems,” begging the question of whether public agencies failed to protect the health of the general public and first responders. (14)

 

Some critics charge that the EPA failed to protect the public and first responders “by issuing inconsistent and misleading statements about the safety of air quality in the vicinity of the WTC,” the CRS report notes. Indeed, some information on hazards was delayed for weeks, making it less useful to people concerned.

 

Among the most outspoken critics was Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who charged that EPA and other agencies had failed in their public health mission. 

 

It has now been exactly five months since the terrorist attacks and, unfortunately, the people in Lower Manhattan still do not know whether or not it is safe to live and work in the area,” Nadler testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works/ Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, and Climate Change on February 11, 2002, in hearings covering the “ Impact of the September 11th Attack on Air Quality and Public Health in Lower Manhattan.” (15)

 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has failed in its mission to "protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment," the congressman charged, “by not exercising its full authority to test and clean all indoor spaces where people live and work.” In a “white paper” on the issue, the congressman said that the agency had “created a full-scale crisis of public confidence. (16)

 

But don’t people in a community have a right to be protected, or told if they may be potentially adversely affected by release of hazardous chemicals? Don’t emergency personnel need immediate information so they can protect themselves from short or long-term health impacts? And doesn’t the general public need health risk information so that they can make choices about personal protection, or leave the area if need be?

 

Even those who head into danger, mindful of occupational hazards, in time want access to timely and accurate information about health and safety.

 

According to the CRS report, the answers to all these questions are yes. “Because information about health risks can be provided only by environmental and public health experts, government officials with expertise arguably have a responsibility to make such information available to the affected public.”

 

That’s the case for emergency responders too. Even those head into danger, mindful of occupational hazards, in time want access to timely and accurate information about health and safety.  Studies show that lack of knowledge about the hazards at the World Trade Center contributed to the rescue workers’ stresses.(1)

 

“Responders respond and they go to work right away, with or without information,” a panelist at a conference on protecting emergency responders told conferees. “What kills rescue responders is the unknown.” Hundreds of firefighters, police and other first responders were lost at the World Trade Center because they weren’t made aware of deadly hazards. Another law-enforcement panelist remarked, “With cops, it’s a real simple mantra: ‘If you don’t give me information, I will give you a rumor.’ And rumors will spread faster than information.” (2)