I have just one question for the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House: Why?
Why after Sept. 11, 2001, did you go out of your way to assure New Yorkers that the air around Lower Manhattan was safe to breathe when in fact you didn't know?
As we know now, the smoke that spiraled from the ruins of the World Trade Center - the air that wafted for months over a board swath of Brooklyn and Manhattan - was thick with a nasty mix of glass fibers, lead, concrete dust and asbestos. As we also know now, respiratory ailments became so common in the months after 9/11 that doctors began to speak of something called World Trade Center Cough.
But these revelations were not a shock.
I can remember walking near Ground Zero two days after 9/11. Everything - from burned-out hulks of cars to deserted cobbled streets to the awnings over shuttered storefronts - was dusted with an odd white film, which I assumed was the granulated residue of the WTC and all that had been inside it. It looked toxic and it smelled toxic.
Inhalation of this ghastly stuff couldn't be good.
Yet here is what the EPA - at the behest of the White House - was reporting at the time:
Sept. 13, 2001: Monitoring and sampling have been "very reassuring" regarding potential exposure - among rescue crews and the public - to environmental contaminants.
Sept. 16, 2001: Quoting an assistant labor secretary on the day before the New York Stock Exchange reopened: "Our tests show that it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York's financial district."
Sept. 18, 2001: Quoting EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman: "I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C., that their air is safe to breathe."
This information, as you may have recognized, comes from a report released last week by the EPA inspector general. It's a scathing document whose impact is still reverberating through New York's political world. In essence, it charges that the White House told the EPA to put a reassuring face on a cataclysm about which little was known.
But again - why?
The inspector general doesn't say. But let's be nice for a moment. Let's acknowledge that in the mayhem and uncertainty of 9/11, no one acted with perfect balance, clarity and judgment.
And let's acknowledge that until that day no one had thought about what might happen if two 110-story towers - soaked in jet fuel and set on fire - collapsed like accordions straight into the ground. Tiny little pieces of glass in the lungs? A blinding cloud of concrete dust? Who knew?
But this isn't a dispute about educated guesses of scientists that turned out to be wrong. Rather, it's a dispute about a government whose leaders ordered a trusted public agency to disseminate some dubious health information.
It was a monumentally stupid thing to do.
Look. When it comes to the public health, trust is nearly as crucial as the practice of competent medicine. Remember the Tuskegee study? That was the syphilis research project done by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972. Over time, the study intentionally denied treatment to hundreds of black Alabamians. We pay the price yet for that unconscionable act of cruelty.
Ask any doctor who treats black AIDS patients in poor neighborhoods. It's a tough battle. People there tend to distrust the public health system and avoid HIV testing. Why? More than 30 years later, many still mention the Tuskegee study.
Maybe the White House was worried about a panic after 9/11. But, really, with part of the city in flames, fighter jets circling in the skies and thousands of our friends and relatives dead or missing, it's hard to see how a cautionary position on air quality could have made things worse.
More likely, as many in New York suspect, the White House simply wanted the New York Stock Exchange to reopen without a hitch on Sept. 17, as a symbol of America's resilient economy.
I think it was crucial for the NYSE to get back on its feet fast. But I think Washington is going to regret its lack of candor on this issue for years.
The next time it needs to offer reassurance on a complicated matter of public health - the next time it needs to calm people down or alert them to a present danger - who's going to believe it?
Joseph Dolman is a columnist and member of Newsday's editorial board.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.