Clearing the Air

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

"I used to be able to go for hours without stopping," Saltarella says. "Now I get exhausted just from breathing." He was subsequently diagnosed with chronic respiratory disorder, which the doctors concluded was related to dust exposure. Saltarella filed for workers' compensation; years later, he is still fighting for those benefits. A judge ruled in his favor five months ago, he says, but the city filed an appeal.

The experience has left him with a profound sense of bitterness. "The city acted like I was the only person complaining, but there's a whole bunch of people," Saltarella says. "They made you feel like you're a piece of shit—someone looking to take the city. There's a whole bunch of those guys. We didn't cause this; they caused us to have this."

At least 12 deaths from lung ailments and cancer have been blamed on the dust cloud in press reports. Among them is firefighter Ray Hauber, 47, who died of esophageal cancer. Friends and family say Hauber was a healthy man who didn't smoke.

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.

In two of the cases—those of Police Officer James Zadroga, who died of pulmonary fibrosis, and lawyer Felicia Dunn Jones, who died of sarcoidosis—local medical examiners agreed that exposure to the dust was a factor.

Another was that of Cesar Borja, a police officer who died of pulmonary fibrosis. Initial reports said that he'd worked 16-hour shifts at Ground Zero, but records subsequently showed that he worked there only 17 days, starting in December 2001—casting doubt on whether his fatal illness stemmed from his time at Ground Zero.

Not long before she died from lung cancer, lower-Manhattan resident Etta Sanders wrote an essay blaming her own illness on the WTC exposures.

"If the government had said we're not sure about the safety of the air and it would be prudent for residents to stay away, I don't think I would have this cancer," she wrote in the essay, which was later published in the Tribeca Tribune. "I dearly hope that I am in a small minority of people who were so gravely harmed by the aftermath of the WTC attacks, but I fear otherwise."

In all, the deaths of 170 people who spent time at Ground Zero have been reported to the New York State Department of Health as part of an ongoing WTC fatality study. But it is unclear whether any of those deaths are related to the dust.

Indeed, there is much that remains unknown about the health effects of 9/11. The Samet and Geyh paper, for example, highlights a number of those questions. Even the actual size of the exposed population, they write, is still unclear.

Also, the government's failure to sample the air immediately after the disaster in a comprehensive manner means that hard data are missing on the types and levels of contaminants in the cloud during the period of the worst exposures, they write.

Paul Lioy, a professor of environmental and occupational medicine at Rutgers University, echoes that point in a paper published in a medical journal in November: "Five years after the attack, many people still do not know that the complex mixture of dust and smoke initially suspended in the air remains somewhat of a scientific mystery."

Even though people exposed to the cloud may be inclined to blame any future illness they contract on that exposure, Samet and Geyh write that the only way to confirm a link is through epidemiological studies that examine a large enough population of exposed people and compare it to a similar population of people who weren't. But that vast and difficult study has yet to be done.

"Even the full suite of research efforts in progress may never produce the evidence needed to answer all of the questions that will be raised about the long-term health effects of September 11," the authors conclude.

In March, Jeanne Stellman, a well- regarded epidemiologist at Columbia University, also sounded a cautionary note: "The current studies . . . cannot possibly provide us with insight into the overall burden of disease and disability because the diseases associated with WTC-like exposures are chronic and take many years to manifest themselves.

"Thus it is too early to know the full extent to which exposure to carcinogens and other toxic and stressful working conditions will lead to elevated rates of cancer or whether the rescue, recovery and cleanup workers will suffer from more cardiovascular disease or other chronic diseases."

The city's health registry, Stellman wrote, is useful but "far from complete. . . . No government or private agency has identified all the workers who participated in the operations."

Stellman compared the situation to that of the soldiers exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, an environmental calamity she's spent decades studying.

"Some 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War and more than 35 years after Agent Orange was sprayed, we still cannot tell our veterans and their loved ones what the effects of exposures to the herbicides are," she wrote.

David Carpenter, a professor of environmental health and toxicology in the School of Public Health at SUNY Albany, also notes the problems confronting researchers. "You need some limit on who was exposed, where they were, how long they were there," he says. "There's no reliable chemical measure, and we don't have a comprehensive list of the diseases we are going to be concerned about.

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