This Week's Attitude
By Neil S. Friedman
You didn't have to be a health expert to suspect the air quality around Ground Zero after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks was tainted with toxic elements from the toppled buildings. Nor was a crystal ball or some psychic skill required to predict that circumstance would ultimately result in assorted health problems, despite government assurances the environment was harmless.
At the time, it wasn't too far-fetched to realize that in years to come some rescue workers, especially firemen and others methodically trying to find and search for colleagues amid the toppled debris, might contract a variety of disorders that would be attributed to toiling at Ground Zero. So, it wasn't too surprising months later when the media started to report on the growing number of rescue workers with lung-related health problems.
Last week, Christie Whitman, who ran the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on 9/11, was grilled at a Congressional committee hearing over "false, misleading and inaccurate" public statements she made that the air in lower Manhattan was safe to breathe. Her agency was also accused of ensuing negligence and faulty long-term cleanup efforts.
While Whitman is surely responsible for spreading misinformation about Ground Zero air six years ago, she certainly didn't go out on a limb without the knowledge of superiors and, possibly, even White House aides aware of what she would tell the public. Besides, she asserted she merely passed on information based on what environmental experts told her. (The White House later used a similar justification to provoke a war based on faulty data about Saddam Hussein's non-existent nuclear capabilities.)
Despite her defiance, the former EPA chief is, at best, covering up to save others, and, at worst, guilty. On the other hand, Whitman is nothing more than another Bush Administration scapegoat taking the heat while the Deceiver- in-Chief remains unscathed by yet another post-9/11 inaccuracy. Even so, Whitman steadfastly insists she was not pressured to make assurances about air quality after the attacks.
In spite of this, the Bush Administration seems to have neglected safety concerns at Ground Zero in its haste to get the country "back to normal" - particularly the reopening of Wall Street as a priority.
Remember, Whitman resigned from the EPA in 2003 when the Bush Administration refused to enforce anti-pollution laws that allowed some the nation's worst offenders to disobey mandates to install pollution controls. Perhaps by then she realized her principles over air quality would not be comprised again. Obviously, the former Republican governor of New Jersey doesn't want to burn her GOP bridges and point the finger of blame at the White House as she adamantly defends her post 9/11 remarks.
Whitman continues to insist that her statements about the safe quality of the air at Ground Zero were not directed at those working atop the ruins. She did issue a press release citing potential hazards to rescue crews and informed the Giuliani administration to urge them to wear respirators, though she has never directly blamed the former mayor for mishandling worker safety during Ground Zero search and rescue efforts.
A small number who went back to work within weeks of the attacks were ridiculed or curiously stared at for wearing masks, but it seems they took an extra precaution that others thoughtlessly ignored.
A preliminary study conducted last year by Manhattan's Mount Sinai Medical Center concluded that since the attacks 70 percent of Ground Zero workers have reported suffering respiratory illnesses, including some at a rate five times higher than before the attacks. Plus, the Daily News recently reported that the Word Trade Center health clinic set up at Bellevue Hospital is treating more than one thousand lower Manhattan residents and workers for respiratory ailments they likely contracted from the dust raised by the 9/11 attacks.
That's got to be the worst cluster of medical disorders since the nuclear accident at Chernobyl!
Over and above who's to blame for negligence over Ground Zero air quality, those who fearlessly spent hours searching and rescuing amid the debris of the World Trade Center deserve a thorough assessment to determine if the ailments they subsequently contracted can be attributed to their rescue efforts.
Then, when all is said and done, the federal government should pay for or reimburse those who suffer from Ground Zero-related heath problems, whether they were part of the rescue effort or lower Manhattan employees who survived the catastrophe and returned to work.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and several New York business leaders recently petitioned to Congress to authorize nearly $300 million for current and future 9/11 health problems, whether they're respiratory or psychological.
Those who've become sick - and those who will - deserve to be treated and compensated because the evidence is mounting that the government's reassurances about the air quality were optimistic at best and at worst lethal.