Health News Digest

September 11, 2006

More Deadly Fallout From 9/11Toxic dust

By  Michael D. Shaw

Today marks the fifth anniversary of 9/11, a tragedy that is finally also being recognized for its continuing health effects. Beyond the immediate casualties that occurred on that fateful day, there is no more denying that the ensuing debris, smoke, chemicals, and fires were more than a mere nuisance, or a temporary inconvenience—whether for surviving civilians or rescue personnel. Indeed, despite the Environmental Protection Agency’s shocking nonchalance over the whole matter, its initial nothing-to-see-here-move-along posture, there is, sad to say, a real problem concerning fallout from this unprecedented event.

NYPD detective James Zadroga, who spent untold hours searching for victims at Ground Zero, and who died in early January, 2006, is believed to be the first emergency responder to have perished as a result of exposure to World Trade Center dust and debris, said Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association. Palladino added: “Unfortunately, I do not think he is going to be the last.”

The results of Zadroga’s autopsy were released on February 28th, and Dr. Gerard Breton, a pathologist at the Ocean County, N.J., medical examiner’s office concluded:

“It is felt with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the cause of death in this case was directly related to the 9/11 incident.”

Indeed, in the just released and most comprehensive study yet run on 9/11 health effects, conducted by Mount Sinai Medical Center, it is noted—ominously—that nearly 70 percent of the rescue and cleanup workers who toiled in the dust and fumes at ground zero have had trouble breathing, and many will probably be sick for the rest of their lives.

Dr. Robin Herbert, co-director of the group that produced the study covering almost 16,000 ground zero workers put it pretty directly:

“There should no longer be any doubt about the health effects of the World Trade Center. Our patients are sick.”

Now, at long last, the Feds are conceding the obvious. There were between 30,000 and 50,000 people at or near Ground Zero who might have been exposed to the hazardous dust. While our attentions were rightly focused on the immediate victims, far too little notice was given to the incredibly toxic mixture of building combustion products, vapors from destroyed electronics, asbestos, and countless other substances that were released in the devastation.

Astoundingly, in the days following the attacks, the head of the EPA declared that monitoring operations had proved the “air was safe to breathe,” although many local NYC authorities disagreed with this conclusion. As such, authorities soon reopened this area of southern Manhattan, based almost exclusively on the EPA’s findings.

However, the Mount Sinai study proves the exact opposite. Close to half of the 16,000 people profiled require some form of treatment for health problems related to 9/11. An additional 7,000 firefighters report a wide range of medical complications as well, yielding a total of 15,000 individuals who have one or more physical difficulties.

Christie Todd Whitman, the former head of the EPA, was the most frequent target during a daylong congressional hearing about these health woes. Her earlier statements about the safety of the air in southern Manhattan have come back to haunt her; thousands of ground zero workers are still ill. She is also being sued over the public assurances she made at the time.

Representative Christopher H. Shays (R-CT), who chaired the hearing, said Whitman’s statements in September, 2001 “[d]efied logic, and everybody knows that.”

Remember, that this is the same EPA that bases its standards on worst-case scenario health effects, spruced up with unimaginably high cascading levels of potential risk. Yet, in this case, it could somehow deny the morbidity exhibited by thousands of people, to say nothing of the toxic dust circulating for weeks. Unfortunately, this is not the first, nor will it be the last case whereby politics and health get together. Be assured that the results of this pairing are seldom good.

Loathe to admit the obvious, NYC Mayor Bloomberg blew off the study, saying, “I don’t believe that you can say specifically a particular problem came from this particular event.” Well, Mr. Mayor, believe it, as it will only get worse. People can very definitely suffer permanent health effects, based on a single toxic exposure, if it is large enough. Contrary to the popular sentiment, what doesn’t kill you does not necessarily make you stronger.

Five years after 9/11, it is high time that we acknowledge the severity of this problem, and do what we can for the surviving victims, many of whom will be suffering for the rest of their lives.