The Fire Department, meanwhile, says that firefighters who were exposed to the pile in that first, hellish week lost, on average, 300 milliliters in breathing capacity, with the most symptomatic losing a liter. Two and a half times as many firemen have retired on respiratory disability since 9/11 as did in the three years before the attacks. Their doctors have also seen twenty cases of the chronic lung disease sarcoidosis, as opposed to the usual rate of two per year; four bizarre cases of something akin to miner’s lung; and a slight increase in thyroid cancer, a trend they’ll be monitoring closely.
And the 9/11 dust cloud may have sickened not just rescue and cleanup workers, but people who simply lived and worked downtown. A group of downtown and Brooklyn residents and workers filed a class-action lawsuit in March against the EPA, alleging “a shockingly deliberate indifference to human health” and seeking compensatory and punitive damages. The State Department of Health, in conjunction with the NYU-Bellevue Hospital asthma center, conducted a study that found that roughly three times as many residents downtown as uptown were complaining of respiratory ailments—a year after 9/11. Some persist.
On a depressingly regular basis, Jerrold Nadler, the congressman representing ground zero, also says he continues to get calls from constituents complaining of coughs, headaches, and mysterious rashes. Even healthy constituents are worried. “I see a lot of these community groups, and I can tell you: Many people ask me about cancer,” says Joan Reibman, the NYU-Bellevue asthma center’s director. “And I never know what to say. I suspect there’s little risk. But I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“It’s rational to be nervous,” says Nadler. “There may be tens of thousands of people downtown who are slowly being poisoned, because their apartments and offices haven’t been properly decontaminated, and some percentage will come down with God-knows-what fifteen years from now.”
I ask Nadler if he feels comfortable going to his office on Varick Street. “Not when I think about it,” he says.
Apart from the occasional fantasy about being a professional athlete, John Walcott knew from the beginning that he wanted to be a cop. Even when he was training to join the police force, even in his rookie year, he never gave much thought to the risks. “Not to be macho,” he says, “but I never got scared.” He has blue, wide-set eyes, and the light brown hair on his head is still a bit fuzzy from chemotherapy. “The only thing that scared me was 9/11, because I didn’t know what to expect.”
On the day of the attacks, Walcott arrived at the World Trade Center just after Tower 2 fell, and spent the afternoon combing through the ruins with a shovel he’d grabbed from an abandoned hardware store. He wound up working for several months around the site—first in the pile, then on the search teams set up by the NYPD, checking abandoned buildings for survivors and escorting displaced residents back to their homes. But because the attacks were considered a crime, and because he’s a detective, Walcott was also sent to Fresh Kills, where he would systematically scan the tower debris for personal effects, human remains, and clues.
Fresh Kills has always had a certain aesthetic peculiarity, but in those days, it was a sci-fi moonscape. The first sight the detectives saw, as they snaked up the 160-foot mesa of WTC remnants, was off-road trucks disgorging heaps of detritus, while a grappler organized the heaps into tidy rows. The detectives combed through it all. Whatever seemed peculiar or significant they threw into a bucket. House keys. Fragments of artwork. A foot in a boot.
Walcott remembers staring at the ground late one evening, green bubbles heaving all around his feet—methane gas, probably, a common and pungent by-product of landfills. As he listened to his co-workers joke about the similarities between Fresh Kills and Homer Simpson’s nuclear-power plant, he looked around and thought: This cannot be healthy.
Anyone who lived or worked near ground zero remembers the rancidness of the fumes—so indescribably foul they were, you could smell them in your eyes. Yet few of us left. Downtowners, for the most part, moved back into their homes; Wall Street went back to work; 40,000 men and women spent months on that pile, clearing it away. If it occurred to any of us that we were paying a price for our decisions, we brushed those thoughts aside. This was our city. This was war. And besides, what else were we going to do?
In the aftermath of the attacks, the EPA issued multiple reassurances about the air quality around ground zero. But a scathing report, released last summer by the EPA’s Inspector General, declared that it was impossible to say how safe the outdoor air was at that time. It turns out that on September 18, the day that EPA head Christie Todd Whitman issued a press release saying she was pleased to note that the air was safe to breathe, the EPA still hadn’t completed testing for mercury, cadmium, lead, dioxin, PAHs, or PCBs. The Inspector General’s report later revealed that the EPA was required to send all of its press statements to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which ran them through a heavy clean-and-rinse cycle before releasing them to the public, transforming modest yet cautionary public advisories into cheerful proclamations that the air was clean.
Here, today, is what we know about the dust and air at ground zero: It contained glass shards, pulverized concrete, and many carcinogens, including hundreds of thousands of pounds of asbestos, tens of thousands of pounds of lead, mercury, cadmium, dioxins, PCBs, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. It also contained benzene. According to a study done by the U.S. Geological Survey, the dust was so caustic in places that its pH exceeded that of ammonia. Thomas Cahill, a scientist who analyzed the plumes from a rooftop one mile away, says that the levels of acids, insoluble particles, high-temperature organic materials, and metals were in most cases higher in very fine particles (which can slip deep into the lungs) than anyplace ever recorded on earth, including the oil fires of Kuwait.
“What you had,” says Cahill, a UC-Davis professor emeritus of physics and atmospheric sciences, “was a ground-level municipal incinerator that smoldered for months. And it was burning up the most heavily computerized building in the world.”
For those who lived through September 11, it makes sense that cancer would have a certain metaphorical potency. Like terrorism, it plucks at an unconscious fear about cells—sleeper cells—working silently with the ultimate intention of claiming your life. Most mainstream doctors, however, would be loath to say outright that there’s an aborning cancer cluster downtown. The latency period for most cancers, even after full-saturation exposure to carcinogens, is typically years, if not decades.
Many of those who were exposed to Agent Orange during Vietnam, for instance, didn’t develop prostate cancer, skin cancer, or chronic lymphocytic leukemia until decades after the war. “For anyone who has a cancer now, I think it’s overwhelmingly unlikely that it’s related to the World Trade Center,” says Jacqueline Moline, a colleague of Robin Herbert’s at Mount Sinai.