Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

Sept. 11 lives on in the lives and kidneys of New York’s finest.

Adri Mehra

When the World Trade Center towers in New York City collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, they left more than one million tons of dust, creating a massive toxic cloud over lower Manhattan ready to be inhaled by rescue workers and residents.

The plume of smoke emanating from New York later that afternoon was so dense that Doppler radar – commonly used to track dangerous weather -displayed a huge red patch jutting dozens of miles into the Atlantic, according to images produced by Philadelphia NEXRAD station KDIX.

As it was the first time in human history that a fully occupied skyscraper had disintegrated (let alone three of them in the same area on the same day), no one knew what the environmental and health consequences would be.

However, wouldn’t it be safe to say that one million tons of pulverized steel, electronics, lead, concrete, Freon, glass, mercury and cellulose – more than 2,500 contaminants in all – would probably not do great things for air quality in such a condensed area?

Of course this was of no concern to the Bush administration, which within a week of the collapses had trotted out Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman to declare that “the air is safe to breathe” and that “the public in New York is not being exposed to excessive levels of asbestos or other harmful substances.”

But how could this be true when WTC leaseholders such as the Port Authority (past) and the Silverstein Properties (present) knew that the debris included one hundred tons of asbestos that had not yet been cleaned out of the towers at the time of their disintegration?

The dust from the towers’ collapse was “wildly toxic,” according to air pollution expert and University of California-Davis Professor Thomas Cahill in The New York Times on Sept. 5, 2006.

About 40,000 workers toiled in the rubble of the towers, breathing in caustic fine cement dust and a terrible mixture of sulfuric acid that effectively defeated their respiratory defense systems and allowed dangerous particulates to embed themselves in their lungs, according to Cahill in USA Today on June 25, 2006.

The fires at ground zero – the recovery site at the towers’ collapse – burned for three months, and there were unprecedented levels of carcinogens and extremely hazardous substances such as dioxin in the air.

On their own, many common consumer and construction materials are fairly nontoxic, but when incinerated and dispersed, they become deadly.

On Sept. 5, 2006 – less than a week before the fifth anniversary of the attacks – New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center released a study reporting that nearly 70 percent of recovery workers suffered lung problems during or after their work at ground zero.

On Nov. 28, 2006, the Village Voice reported that “to date, 75 recovery workers at ground zero have been diagnosed with blood cell cancers that a half-dozen top doctors and epidemiologists have confirmed as having been likely caused by that exposure.”

And people aren’t just getting sick. They’re dying.

On Jan. 5, 2006, 34-year-old NYPD Detective James Zadroga was found dead on his bedroom floor – the victim of a respiratory disease he had contracted at ground zero, according to USA Today.

At the time of his death, Zadroga – a nonsmoker – had lungs so scarred that he needed supplemental oxygen to breathe.

Gerard Breton, a pathologist of the Ocean County, N.J., medical examiner’s office that conducted Zadroga’s autopsy, stated that “it is felt with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the cause of death in this case was directly related to the 9/11 incident.”

Four months later, communications recovery worker Mark DiBiase, 41, also died. He had worked without protective gear to restore communications between emergency personnel.

On Nov. 1, 2006, Sister Cindy Mahoney, an Episcopalian nun from South Carolina who had spent several months serving first responders’ spiritual needs at ground zero, choked to death two weeks after being cut off from her health insurance, according to the New York Daily News.

Sister Mahoney had battled lung difficulties since autumn 2001.

And, of course, hours before his son appeared at President Bush’s State of the Union address in Washington, D.C., as a symbol of New York’s “walking dead” of 9-11 recovery workers, former New York City police officer Cesar Borja succumbed to a respiratory ailment.

He had been breathing through a tube at Mount Sinai at the time of his death, awaiting a lung transplant.

What does billionaire media mogul and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have to say about his city’s bravest in their hour of need?

“I don’t believe that you can say specifically a particular problem came from this particular effect,” Bloomberg declared after opposing providing death benefits for police and fire department workers, citing the $5 to $10 million as too expensive for the city.

The tragedy of 9-11 continues, more than five years later. Who wants to answer for these deaths?

Adri Mehra welcomes comments at [email protected]