The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

After September 11, still gasping for air

Sep 8, 2003

Two years after the September 11 terrorist attack on New York City's World Trade Center (WTC), thousands of workers and residents in lower Manhattan continue to suffer from exposure to the dust and particulate debris at Ground Zero.

Exactly how many is not known, because the Bush administration has blocked all proposals to fund a serious health study. But a recent National Defense Council Environmental Impact report estimates that as many as 10,000 New Yorkers living or working near Ground Zero suffer health effects related to air pollution. These include several hundred firemen and paramedics who had been a part of the initial rescue efforts. To this day, most of them are still on disability or are now limited to desk work. Most often, those stricken have a compromised immune system, which leaves them open to rampant infection and disease. They also suffer from reduced lung capacity and a cough that doctors now call "World Trade Center cough," a dry and persistent cough that can be triggered by even mild irritants, such as cold air or exhaust fumes. About 20% also continue to have serious stomach problems, as the result of swallowing very fine concrete dust.

They are not the only ones. This past month an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that several dozen babies had a low birth weight after their mothers were exposed to dust from the World Trade Center collapse.

These people are not just the victims of the terrorists, but of the U.S. government, which posed as people's protection from the terrorists. From the first days following the attacks, high government officials assured the public that they need not worry about the dust. On September 13, 2001, even before tests could have been run and analyzed, Bush's head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman, announced that New York's air and water were safe. Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani pronounced the air quality safe and acceptable on September 28.

For nine months after September 11, both the EPA and the New York City Health Department insisted that the dust contained few contaminants and posed little health risk to anyone but those caught near the initial plume from the towers' collapse. On April 2002, Whitman continued this line when she told public television's Nightly News, "Everything we've tested for, which includes asbestos, lead and volatile organic compounds, have been below any level of concern for the general public health."

This was a lie. Private tests showed that asbestos, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals, including poisonous PCBs, were at highly dangerous levels not only all through the WTC site, but all across lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. A scathing report issued by the EPA's own Inspector General's office in January 2003 even castigated high officials in the Bush administration for revising information released by the EPA. Needless to say, this January report has yet to be officially released.

Why did the Bush administration go to such lengths to hide the truth? Very simple – the government and private sector bosses were trying to avoid paying for all the precautions that workers should have taken during the rescue effort and demolition of the site, nor did they want to pay for the vast clean-up necessary.

Kevin Mount, a now chronically ill 49-year-old sanitation worker, who for several months after September 11 sifted debris from the WTC, told the New York Daily News, that while he and the other members of the recovery crew were outfitted only with a paper mask, "the FBI and government big shots were well taken care of. They got those environmental hazard suits, masks, gloves, the works.... But our bosses told us that we were lucky to have a job."

Tragedies and crises only bring out society's class divisions, inequities and injustices that much more.