EDITORIAL: The air of 9/11 was worse for New Yorkers than reported
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania)
Copyright 2006 P.G. Publishing Co.
A new study documenting the health hazard to New York City firefighters who breathed toxic dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 is yet another reminder of the brazen falsehoods fed to New Yorkers about their city's air quality in the days following the terrorist attacks.
The study, which involved 12,000 fire personnel, found that emergency services workers suffered a significant reduction in lung capacity from inhaling toxic substances that were unleashed when hijacked airliners hit and destroyed the trade center complex.
The firefighters, who heroically remained at their posts — struggling to rescue survivors on that awful day and searching the scene for remains for weeks afterward — aren't at immediate risk of death from the exposure to asbestos, concrete dust, glass fibers and other toxic particles. But their future could be a sad story.
According to the researchers, the workers face increased risk in their later years from such agonizing ailments as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. This is discouraging news, even for public employees whose line of work involves breathing smoke on a regular basis.
The study, conducted by Montefiore Medical Center and published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, compared post-9/11 breathing tests with tests given periodically by the New York Fire Department prior to the attacks. Even the use of breathing masks did not seem to mitigate the damage.
Firefighters might shrug off the study results as an expected occupational risk. But the same cannot be expected of millions of New York City residents who were told by federal officials that the dust from the disaster was, essentially, nothing much to worry about.
The culprit in that case was Christine Todd Whitman, then-administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who acted at the direction of White House officials to downplay the very real health hazards facing people who lived and worked nearby.
We know this because, in 2003, the EPA's inspector general issued a report divulging that strong warnings drawn up by the agency were softened and reassurances were added.
For example, a statement about discovery of asbestos at dangerous levels in dust samples from lower Manhattan was altered to say that "samples confirm previous reports that ambient air quality meets OSHA standards and consequently is not a cause for public concern."
Ms. Whitman later was quoted as saying, "We didn't want to scare people."