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The “dust lady” photo has become one of the iconic images of 9/11. The image of a woman, shocked and disoriented, completely covered in dust from the demolition of the Twin Towers, brings the nearly incomprehensible events of that day down to a human scale.
But of course the “dust lady” was not the only one to feel the effects of the blanket of dust that descended on Manhattan after the towers fell. In the hours, days, and weeks that followed, thousands upon thousands of victims, first responders, emergency personnel, clean up crews, and residents were subjected to the poisonous stew of asbestos, benzene, mercury, lead, cadmium and other particulates from which many are now dying.
CBS REPORTER: “Dr David Prezant, Chief Medical Officer with the New York Fire Department, spent 7 years examining more than 10,000 fire-fighters. Those who were at the World Trade Center site after 9/11 and those who weren’t.”
DR. DAVID PERZANT: “And we found an increase in all cancers, combined. A 19% increase in cancers compared to the non-exposed World Trade Center group.”
(SOURCE: 9/11 first responders and cancer)
ABBY MARTIN: “Talk about the most pressing medical issues facing 9/11 first responders right now.”
JOHN FEAL: “Cancer. In the beginning, in the first few years it was respiratory but now it’s cancers and this is just the first wave of cancers, the blood cancers, the leukemias, the organ cancers but in 5 or 10 more years you’re going to see the asbestos cancers. There will be another wave of cancers and like I tell everybody, this is a generation long issue and a generation long illness.”
KEN GEORGE: “Every morning I wake up I gotta take 33 pills within the course of the day. At 47 years old I have lungs of an 80 year old man that would’ve been a smoker. People say you have to forget about 9/11 and I say how could I forget about 9/11 when every morning I gotta take this medication and walk around with an oxygen tank.”
If the brave men and women who had rushed to the World Trade Center in the chaotic days after 9/11 to help with the search and rescue had done so knowing the risks they were facing, that would be one thing. But of course they did not. They had been given false assurances by Christine Todd Whitman, the EPA administrator who assured the public just days into the clean up that the air was safe to breathe.
CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: “We know asbestos was in there, was in those buildings. Lead is in the those buildings. There are the VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds), however, the concentrations are such that they don’t pose a heath hazard.”
As the weeks and months dragged on, Whitman, the EPA and its officials made statement after statement after statement reaffirming that contaminant levels were “low or non-existent” and that the air quality in Manhattan posed “no public health concern.”
We now know that these reassurances were outright lies. On September 18th, the very same day that Whitman and the EPA were encouraging New Yorkers to return to work, the agency detected sulfur dioxide levels in the air so high that “according to one industrial hygienist, they exceeded the EPA’s standard for a classification of ‘hazardous’.” By that time, first responders were already reporting a range of health problems, including coughing, wheezing, eye irritation and headaches.
The evidence continued to pour in that there were serious health concerns for those in and around Manhattan, but the information was suppressed almost as quickly as it was discovered. When a local lab tested dust samples from near the WTC site and found dangerous concentrations of fiberglass and asbestos, the New York State Department of Health warned local labs that they would lose their licenses if they processed any more “independent sampling.” When US Geological Survey scientists began performing tests on their own dust samples, they were shocked at the “alphabet soup of heavy metals” they found in it. They forwarded this information to the EPA, but the agency continued to assure the public that there was no evidence of long term health risks.
The drama continued to unfold as information poured in about benzene, lead and other environmental toxins. Yet on September 18th the EPA specifically advised the public against wearing respirators outside the World Trade Center restricted area. Then, just two weeks later, the agency distributed respirators to their own staffers at the EPA’s Region 2 building on Broadway Street.
As scientists, industrial hygenists, and even other government officials began to accuse the EPA of covering up the true extent of the problem in New York, the agency continued with its dogged assertion that the air was safe to breathe.
It wasn’t until 2003 that the EPA’s own Inspector General revealed that the White House had been editing the agency’s press releases all along, finding that “the White House Council on Environmental Quality influenced, through the collaboration process, the information that EPA communicated to the public through its early press releases when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones.”
When new documents were released to the public in 2011 on the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it was discovered that this editing was even worse than originally feared.
ANTHONY DePALMA: “There were clear warnings. Specifically on Water Street, which for those people in this area know is not far from Wall Street, that showed that the levels of contaminates in the air was too high people to go back. That (warning) was removed which was bad enough and then replaced with a recommendation that people go back to work. They were urged to go back. Even thought the early samples were showing that there were high-levels of contaminates.”
JUAN GONZALEZ: “And you point out also that in many cases they (EPA) were telling people that is was safe before they had even finished conducting initial tests.”
ANTHONY DePALMA: “In one email exchange that happens on the 13th (of September), so it’s just a day and a half later, the people in Washington at the White House Council on Environmental Quality are telling the people up here “Hey, Christine Whitman is coming up. She’s going to talk to reporters because all of the results so far have been so positive.
“Well, all of the results so far showed almost nothing because there were almost no results and yet they were committed to this message of reassurance despite the facts. And that’s not the way it should happen.”
Outraged at the fact that they had been lied to and their lives put at risk, residents and workers in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn sued Whitman and the EPA in 2004. In a 2006 ruling allowing the class action lawsuit to proceed, Judge Deborah A. Batts of Federal District Court in Manhattan excoriated Whitman, finding that her baseless assurances that the air was safe “increased, and may have in fact created, the danger” to people living and working in the area. Ruling that the EPA did, in fact, make “misleading statements of safety” about the air quality, Judge Batts said: “The allegations in this case of Whitman’s reassuring and misleading statements of safety after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks are without question conscience-shocking.”
Batts’ decision was overturned by a panel of judges in 2008, who ruled that misleading the public and contributing to the health problems and deaths of untold Ground Zero workers was not conscience shocking enough to override her immunity from prosecution as a federal agent.
If Whitman has a conscience at all, it is evidently not shocked by any of these accusations. She has not only never conceded guilt or even expressed sorrow for the ongoing sickness and deaths that her action helped bring about, she has repeatedly defended the actions of herself and the EPA in general.
CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: “Statements that EPA officials made after 9/11 were based on the judgement of experienced environmental and health professionals at the EPA, OSHA and the CDC, who had analyzed the test data that 13 different organizations and agencies were collecting in Lower Manhattan.
“I do not recall any EPA scientist or experts responsible for viewing this data ever advising me that the test data from Lower Manhattan showed that the air or water proposed long-term health risks for the general public.”
Whitman’s lies are not just those of another self-serving politician looking to save their job or stay out of jail. They are the lies of someone who has contributed to the deteriorating health and even the death of thousands of innocent men and women.
For the victims of Christine Todd Whitman, the EPA, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and all of the other agencies and officers who lied to the public about the health risks in New York, 9/11 is not a single day of horror that occurred a decade and a half ago. It is a slowly unfolding nightmare, one that every day brings them one step closer to their grave.
The “dust lady” is one of the icons of the tragedy of that day. Should it be any surprise, then, that she, too, was ravaged by 9/11 related diseases and ultimately died of cancer last year?
She was not the first person to die from the aftermath of 9/11. And, thanks to Christine Todd Whitman and the liars at the EPA who have consigned untold thousands to a similar fate, she will not be the last.
DAVID MILLER: “My name is David Miller. On September 11, 2001, along with hundreds of my fellow troops I went to Ground Zero. No one asked us. No orders were given. We went because our city, our country, our neighbors were under attack and we knew what to do, or at least we thought we did.
“On September 13th we marched back in, in groups of twos and threes at first and then dozens until there must of been more than 200 of us. Carrying ropes, ladders, tools of every kind back into the smoke and the poison and rubble were we reached an intersection with hundreds of civilians cheering us on. Our uniforms were torn and soiled, our resolve was simple. To stay and dig as long as we had any hope to save anybody.
“I want to tell you about how sick some of these brave men and women have become. I want to tell about how the Mayor refused to accept the fact that not dozens, not hundreds but many thousands of us were contaminated, sickened and poisoned by the most toxic combinations of building materials in the history of disaster relief and that for 5 terrible years he ignored that fact. 5 years of our family members watching us drop dead.
“And every time Popular Mechanics calls the people of this movement, nuts, these propagandists—professional liars and tools who can not even by any stretch of the imagination be considered journalists—strike another nail into the coffin of another rescue worker.”