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Staten Island Advance


The Ground Zero lie

August 4, 2006 — One week after the horrifying attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Environmental Protection Administrator Christine Todd Whitman announced, "I am glad to reassure the people of New York...that their air is safe to breathe...The good news for the residents of New York is that the air, while smoky, is not dangerous."

A few weeks later, another EPA spokeswoman said of the air quality in the wake of the fiery collapse of the World Trade Center towers, presumably with her boss' approval, "There was not a significant risk, even in the early days."

To support that reassuring conclusion, Ms. Whitman's EPA released carefully selected test results.

But other test results subsequently released by the EPA after a Freedom of Information Act request by the nonprofit New York Environmental Law and Justice Project told quite a different story.

Those tests showed elevated levels of dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead and chromium in the air, ground and water around Ground Zero. All are toxic substances.

We've always thought that Ms. Whitman's heart wasn't in these glib pronouncements. As governor of New Jersey, she'd always been a relatively straightforward public official.

But after 9/11, she was devotedly carrying water for the Bush Administration, which had already amassed a considerable history of saying things that flew in the face of the facts.

(In fact, before that, Ms. Whitman had been complicit in the EPA's heavy editing and revision of a National Academy of Sciences report endorsing the view that manmade pollution was a significant contributor to global warming.)

It appeared that Ms. Whitman, once considered in the running to be George W. Bush's running mate in 2000 and later appointed EPA head in the first Bush Administration as a consolation prize, had traded her integrity for her ambition.

Now, the bitter fruit of that deception has ripened and the truth is worse than anyone thought.

A study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine and released this week showed that the firefighters and others who worked heroically at Ground Zero for weeks after 9/11 had suffered an average of 12 years' worth of lung function loss in just one year as a result of exposure to these toxic substances after 9/11.

The analysis was based on periodic tests performed on about 12,000 Fire Department rescue workers from 1997 to 2002.

In the years before 9/11, the workers lost a minimal amount of lung function for each year as they aged. But in just one year after the towers fell, that annual loss jumped by a factor of 12.

Many of the participants reported coughing, wheezing and chest pain, along with resultant difficult in performing simple physical tasks, such as walking up stairs. These health issues can be especially troublesome for those whose job it is to fight fires.

Those who were at the World Trade Center when the towers fell suffered the most damage to their lungs, the analysis found.

In all, 62 percent of those whose lung function was studied had lower respiratory problems, 50 percent coughed, and 42 percent suffered shortness of breath during even mild physical activity, according to the New York Times.

It remains to be seen whether this damage will heal over time, now that these one-time first responders are no longer exposed to the air polluted by up to 400 different chemicals at the site, or if their lung capacity continues to decline at a precipitous rate.

If the latter happens, these people will be at risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to doctors quoted by the Times.

John Balmes, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco who reviewed the research, wrote in an editorial accompanying the report that this disturbing loss of lung capacity among Ground Zero workers "could have been prevented with early and well-trained use of simple respiratory protective equipment."

It didn't take a formal study to know that the notorious "WTC cough" shared by so many Ground Zero workers was real.

Advance columnist Cormac Gordon wrote about this as far back as September, 2003, when he told the harrowing story of Joe Sykes, a Westerleigh resident and former FDNY fire marshal.

Mr. Sykes said at the time that it didn't take him long to figure out that working at Ground Zero was an unhealthy enterprise.

He worked amid the still-smoldering ruins for five straight days and nights after the attacks before taking a break.

"You had to take a finger and scrape the stuff off your tongue," he said of the gooey substance that stuck to everything, including respiratory passages, at the site.

"You didn't have to be wearing a monitor," he said. "Not if you had half a brain."

The experience had a devastating effect on Mr. Sykes, then 44 and the father of young quadruplets. He was a strapping, healthy, physically active specimen who loved playing with his kids, loved his job...before 9/11.

Within a couple of months of working at the site, he was wheezing and gasping for air. He couldn't even help his wife by carrying a basket of laundry upstairs.

His wife, Alberta, begged him to go get a FDNY physical, and finally he did.

He was told: "Don't ever go down there again. And start thinking about what you want to do with the rest of your life. You're finished on this job."

He told Mr. Gordon in 2003, "You can't help but think it might get you somewhere down the road."

Apparently, it's getting to a lot of the people who worked with him at Ground Zero, and we're just five years out from 9/11. What might the data be five years from now? Ten?

All this, after EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, at the behest of the White House, was "glad" to tell us with a straight face on the basis of nothing more than wishful thinking the "good news...that the air, while smoky, is not dangerous."

Smoky but not dangerous? What was in all that smoke? Burning pieces of the World Trade Center and two airliners, their synthesized contents and human occupants, that's what. Not dangerous?

All the people who worked at Ground Zero, indeed, anyone with an ounce of common sense understood that this claim was preposterous.

Now, diagnosis by diagnosis, the full scope of that horrendous lie is being slowly exposed.

Why did the federal government lie? There was fear of widespread panic and a need to calm a jumpy public, no doubt.

Remember, the theme after 9/11 was that everything had to get back to normal as quickly as possible, or else the terrorists would have won. So the Stock Exchange and other downtown financial centers reopened within days to send that message.

The firefighters and other first responders were expendable pawns in this charade. The work they did had to be done, and to tell the truth, a lot of them, like Joe Sykes, would have stayed anyway, considering all the friends who were lost in what they called "The Pile," considering what was at stake in that effort.

"It's not like any of us was going to leave, no matter what they said," he told us three years ago.

After that had happened, they could have handled the truth.

But Washington chose to disseminate happy horsefeathers instead for its own reasons. Reasons, Joe Sykes said then, that were mostly about money.

These heroes, of all people, deserved better, much better. If they are bitter now, they have a right to be.

So do we all.