Published on Thursday, September 7, 2006 by the New York Daily News
Clearing the Air with the Truth
by Juan Gonzalez
After nearly five years of lies from top city and federal officials about the health dangers from the toxic dust released by the World Trade Center collapse, the truth has finally begun to emerge.
Back on Oct. 26, 2001, in a Daily News front-page story headlined "A Toxic Nightmare at Disaster Site," I reported that hundreds of tests conducted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency revealed far more elevated levels of toxic pollutants in the air and dust in lower Manhattan than the public had been told.
That shocking story was immediately attacked by top officials in then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani's administration, by the EPA boss at the time, Christie Whitman, and even by the city's main business group, the Partnership for New York City, whose top official labeled it "irresponsible journalism."
Yes, there were some "spikes" in toxic emissions, Whitman and Giuliani Health Commissioner Neal Cohen admitted, but no long-term danger.
Despite their assurances, thousands who returned to lower Manhattan came down with new physical ailments, especially among the city's first responders and recovery workers, but also downtown residents and office workers.
Yesterday came the first conclusive proof that those assurances from City Hall and the EPA were horribly wrong. We got an inkling, as well, of the huge public health toll our city now faces.
Nearly 70% of 9,500 Ground Zero responders and workers monitored by Mount Sinai Medical Center over the past five years have new or worsened respiratory problems. Some may be sick for the rest of their lives.
But this astonishing illness rate cannot simply be attributed to honest human error.
Three years ago, an investigation by the EPA's own inspector general's office revealed that in the first days after 9/11, White House aides rewrote agency press releases to downplay any dangers in order to reopen Wall Street quickly.
Government documents uncovered by this column since 9/11 showed city and federal officials hid important information about the true extent of contamination.
The city's Department of Environmental Protection, for example, found high levels of asbestos in 27 of the first 38 air samples it took in lower Manhattan before Sept. 17, 2001. But the city didn't publicly disclose those results until five months later.
On Sept. 12, 2001, Dr. Ed Kilbourne, a top federal scientist, warned in a strongly worded memo to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention against the quick reoccupation of buildings in lower Manhattan because of possible dangers from asbestos and other toxic material, but he was ignored.
On Oct. 6, 2001, Associate City Health Commissioner Kelly McKinney complained that health and safety protections for Ground Zero workers were not being enforced. McKinney offered to have "[Department of Health] personnel ... issue [violations] for non-compliance." But City Hall did not immediately act on his recommendation.
Those at the top simply ignored the warning signs.
Now, thousands are sick, more will get sick in the years to come and an unknown number will die before their time.
Yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg finally recognized this huge problem. He announced the city will provide health treatment to anyone sickened by Ground Zero contaminants — at no out-of-pocket cost to the victim. His program also will treat office workers and nearby residents, thus implicitly recognizing that more than Ground Zero workers have been affected.
It is, however, small consolation to the sick New Yorkers who expected their leaders to tell them the truth when it mattered.
Juan Gonzalez is a Daily News columnist.
© 2006 Daily News, L.P.