Clearing the Air

Sorting solid claims about the 9/11 toxic cloud from the obscuring haze of uncertainty

To understand how deeply New Yorkers hold the conviction that 9/11 environmental fallout is killing people, you need only to have attended the August 21 public meeting that was held in a chamber across from City Hall.

The topic was the disastrous August 18 fire in the heavily contaminated Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty Street, which killed two firefighters. Only three weeks before the sixth anniversary of the terror attacks, here were city, state, and federal officials once again trying to downplay the possibility that the fire released environmental toxins into the neighborhood.

But the air was so thick with skepticism from the crowd that the assertions couldn't gain any traction. One resident described the debacle as a "religious kind of shame." Marc Ameruso, a lower-Manhattan community-board member, said, "The ghost of the World Trade Center is rearing its ugly head once again."

World Trade Center fire/ terrorism September 11, 2001. NYPD officer muster a Chambers and Church Streets.
Richard B. Levine
World Trade Center fire/ terrorism September 11, 2001. NYPD officer muster a Chambers and Church Streets.

It was hard to blame the doubters. The Bush, Pataki, and Giuliani administrations have either misled or poorly informed the public about the toxic dangers of what has been described "as the largest acute environmental disaster that ever has befallen New York City."

In the early days following the attacks, even the men and women who worked on "the Pile" expressed skepticism about the negative health effects of 9/11's toxic cloud. But that initial doubt has given way to a popular view that blames the dust cloud for virtually every ailment experienced by someone who was at or near Ground Zero. And broad public acceptance of the notion that the cloud has sickened people is creating a powerful momentum for long-term government support for the vast number of people affected.

Based on a Voice count, more than 52 illnesses have been mentioned in connection with the 9/11 toxic cloud, either anecdotally in press reports, more broadly in government comments, or with some scientific underpinning in research studies. "In the six years since the attacks, we have accumulated a mountain of evidence that tens of thousands of those exposed are suffering from chronic respiratory disease and, increasingly, a variety of rare cancers," said Representative Jerrold Nadler, who has emerged as a leading advocate on the issue, during a June 25 congressional hearing.

More than 100 scientific papers have been written exploring a link between 9/11 and health ailments. Many of those strongly suggest that the dust was a factor in increased respiratory illnesses among people exposed to the cloud.

Even as they suggest a connection, however, researchers also often hedge their language, describe flaws in the research, or suggest that definitive links will be hard to establish. The question of what we know about those links—and what we don't know—is a subject that likely will occupy researchers and those affected for years to come. "More than 5 years after the World Trade Center disaster on September 11, 2001, uncertainty and controversy remain about the health risks posed by inhaling the dust from the collapse of the twin towers, the subsequent fires, and the cleanup effort," epidemiologists Jonathan Samet and Alison Geyh of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health wrote in May in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The hard data leave little doubt that heavy exposure led to documented respiratory ailments, but there's far less certainty about more severe respiratory ailments, particularly the cancers that some have linked to Ground Zero.

"What's clearest and strongest is in the immediate persistence of effects on the respiratory system of the more exposed," Samet told the Voice in a recent interview. "Where the uncertainty begins is when one tries to understand the consequences for the broader public and the longer-term effects."

The World Trade Center health crisis is a saga told on a massive scale. Consider: 10,000 people have signed up for the pending class-action lawsuit against the city, and 71,000 for the city's World Trade Center Health Registry.

Nearly 20,000 people have been screened in Mount Sinai's medical-monitoring program. More than 1,300 people have been treated at the city-funded WTC clinic at Bellevue Hospital.

The estimated number of Ground Zero responders is 40,000, and the estimated number of people who came in contact with the dust is 410,000.

More than 600 firefighters have taken early retirement because of permanent, disabling respiratory illness, along with an unknown number of police officers, city workers, construction workers, and members of other groups.

In courtrooms, hearing rooms, and government offices, there is a paper war raging between people who claim they are sick, and the city, state, and federal agencies that must decide whether to pay for their medical coverage.

More than 3,000 police officers have filed disability claims, but the NYPD has approved just 116 cases, The New York Sun reported recently.

Last month, it was reported that 19,000 people had signed up with the state for workers' compensation benefits, but the true eligible population is believed to be 100,000. Take just one workers' comp case, that of former Sanitation Department employee Jack Saltarella, who drove barges filled with WTC dust and debris from Ground Zero to the Fresh Kills landfill.

Claiming respiratory illness, Saltarella and a dozen other barge workers sued the city, but a judge tossed the case out, citing a lack of evidence. However, that decision came before public opinion began to look more favorably on arguments linking the dust and illnesses.

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