Thursday, May 20, 2004

Holding My Breath

When the second plane hit the tower the sound was deafening and the shades on my window blew in violently, remarkable considering the fact that the windows faced the opposite direction of the World Trade Center. I was getting ready to leave for work and had the television tuned to CNN as the situation was unfolding. My apartment was situated on Pearl St., in between John St. and Maiden Lane, roughly four blocks from the World Trade Center so leaving my apartment became imperative. The subway was no longer an option so I joined the masses of travelers on foot walking uptown in what had the surreal appearance of a trail of white collar refugees. Glancing over my left shoulder I saw the Twin Towers burning. All around me, debris and paper was raining down.

My apartment was uninhabitable for two weeks, as the water and electricity were both not working, not to mention the fact that transportation below Canal St. was limited to walking, and even then the national guard posted in lower Manhattan discouraged the journey and only allowed visits to residents who could prove their status.

After the second week, though, the water and electricity were on-line, and my landlord informed me, through the management company representative, that they considered the apartment inhabitable and would begin charging rent again (they had magnanimously decided to provide a two-week reprieve immediately following the attacks).

I complained that the air was not safe, and that adequate clean-up had not even begun, let alone been completed. My protests were scoffed at by the management company. The woman I spoke to took a smug and condescending tone of voice when she told me that, "of course the air was safe, even the EPA has said so." When I protested further that the EPA may not know all they need to know, and that even then they may have a reason to mislead the public in order to get Wall St. back to work, she actually laughed at me. Laughed, and suggested that my theory was "a little paranoid."

I delayed returning beyond the two weeks, but only by a week, as my rent charges were ongoing and I was outliving my welcome on my friend's couch. I didn't feel great about it, but even I began to doubt my earlier skepticism and thought that surely the EPA would not put the health of so many in jeopardy.

You can imagine the anger I am experiencing now that reports are emerging about just how very dangerous the air was in that area for months after 9/11. As Newsweek is reporting, doctors and experts studying the environmental impact of the collapse of the towers are concluding that the air "within a 10-block radius," and possibly more, contained a cocktail of harmful pollutants including "asbestos, lead and polychlorinated biphenyls (or PCBs) in addition to pulverized cement and glass fibers."

My landlord, New York City officials and those in charge of the clean up efforts believed that "the air was safe after the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman declared it so a week after the attacks (a statement she has since been widely criticized for making)."

The EPA was pressured by the Bush administration to make statements about the safety of the air that ran counter to the scientific data available at the time, and were at best premature and overly optimistic, but more likely deceptive.

Even worse than urging workers to return to work before conditions were safe, "no one was insisting that workers wear respirators," says Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, chair of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine and director of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York..."I wouldn't fault anyone in the first 48 hours during the immediate response," he adds, "but for months afterward most workers at Ground Zero were still not wearing respirators and, in my mind, that is a terrible failure in regulation and it’s going to result in a lot of diseases that could have been prevented."

Now, many of the firefighters, police officers, construction workers, and other relief workers are facing widespread health effects, the full extent of which will not be known for years. So, too, are those that returned to work and residences in the weeks immediately following the attacks, myself included. Many of these heroic figures, myself excluded, are suffering from debilitating health effects that prevent them from returning to work, yet government agencies have been reluctant to recognize their claims, subjecting them to months of fighting through a sea of paperwork and bureacratic run-around. Contrast that reality with the images of 9/11 that the Bush administration is so eager to portray in maudlin campaign commercials.

The question remains, however, if the EPA, and the federal and local governments were willing to risk the health of courageous Americans willing to help in this City's, and this nation's, most dire of moments, what are they going to do to make it right or acknowledge their mistakes?

I'm not holding my breath.

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