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Fallout

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David Worby  

Colangelo went to see many doctors for her symptoms. None believed they had much to do with her apartment. “They think we’re a bunch of hypochondriacs,” she says.

Colangelo finally moved out of her apartment in February 2002. Around the same time, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic-stress disorder. She took time off work and went on partial disability. Today, though her headaches and sinus problems are gone, she’s still suffering from a host of allergies, GERD, and a mysterious stomach ailment, for which she was being tested the day after I saw her. “I feel like an 80-year-old,” she says, running a hand through her cinnamon hair. “This governs my life.”

It would seem logical to assume that the farther away from ground zero you were on September 11, the safer you were. But here’s the reality: No one knows for certain what the fallout from the World Trade Center is or will be. Not for rescue workers. Not for residents. Not for anyone. Read the EPA Inspector General’s report, in fact, and it’s official: No one in our government has a clue. In the weeks following the attack, the outdoor air around Wall Street might have been safe; it might not. Today, the air indoors downtown might be okay; it might not. The uncertainties outlined by the report are frank, real, and maddening. A representative statement: “[A] definitive answer to whether the air was safe to breathe may not be settled for years to come.” Or: “The full extent of public exposure to indoor contaminants resulting from the WTC collapse is unknown.”

In the face of this uncertainty, Worby, Nadler, and other advocates believe the best recourse is to set up and fund monitoring and treatment programs. Yet this doesn’t seem to be a priority for the city, the state, or the federal government—a conclusion shared by the Government Accountability Office in a report it issued last week. The only city-run attempt at monitoring the health effects of 9/11 is something called the World Trade Center Registry, and that’s not even a medical program but a list of people who submit themselves to a half-hour interview, describing the ways they’re unwell. The Mount Sinai monitoring program sees only first responders, allows only three visits a patient, and has only five years of funding. Its $1.5 million treatment program, a smaller effort involving just 880 patients, is funded entirely by philanthropy. Forty percent of its patients don’t have health insurance. “If we see cancer among these people,” asks Robin Herbert, “who’s going to pay for their medical care?”

In March, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who along with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton successfully pushed for the money for the Mount Sinai monitoring program, introduced the Remember 9/11 Health Act, a bill that demands a coordinated federal response to the terror attacks—not just in the form of monitoring potential victims, but in treating them, and for a period of twenty years. Nadler, meanwhile, has been holding press conference after press conference, demanding the EPA test downtown buildings in concentric circles for contamination. But given Congress’s reluctance to spend money on New York, it’s hard to imagine Maloney’s bill ever getting traction. And for three years, the EPA has maintained that cleaning indoor air from the disaster site is not its statutory responsibility, but the responsibility of the city.

It’s difficult to assess whether downtown needs an expensive cleanup. When the EPA finally tested 3,405 apartments, it didn’t find much—though private firms, Nadler says, found plenty of contaminated buildings that the agency had said were clean. Joachim Pleil, an EPA scientist who studied PAH levels around the periphery of ground zero, concluded that those breathing that outdoor air increased their risk of getting cancer by only one millionth of a percentage point—though he concedes his numbers did not apply to indoor air, where the PAHs he studied may never have broken down.

So Nadler is unappeased. Why, he argues, should New Yorkers live with this question hovering above their heads like so much smoke? “If the government doesn’t do a proper cleanup,” he says, “the officials who are resisting it will be responsible for excess deaths. They may never be held accountable legally, but I wouldn’t want to be in their position when they meet their maker.”

This fall, the Deutsche Bank Building, which sits wrapped, Christo-like, on the periphery of ground zero, is scheduled for demolition. The bank claims parts of the building are glutted with asbestos and other contaminants; the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which now owns the building and is responsible for the tear-down, hasn’t yet made its assessment public. Will this be the moment when New Yorkers finally have a frank public discussion about World Trade Center fallout? And find the right balance between science and melodrama, precaution and alarm? It’s something to think about—before the wrecking balls swing and the asbestos and bad memories are rereleased into the air.

Because of his “chemo brain,” as he puts it, John Walcott can no longer recall certain details of his life. He can’t remember exactly when he met his wife, for example—only that it was “the year it rained and snowed.” The details of his daughter’s second year are fuzzy for a different reason. For much of the time, he wasn’t home for them, or he was too weak to notice.

After each chemotherapy session, Walcott didn’t have the strength to pick up Colleen. Having so few white blood cells, he was also tremendously susceptible to infections and colds, which children, of course, tend to attract.

He says his daughter, now 2, understands that her father is unwell. “She knows I take medicine,” he says. “Now that she takes those chewable vitamins, we take them at the same time.” Once, when Walcott started having an uncontrollable nosebleed, she raced to get him cotton balls. Now she sometimes offers him cotton balls even when he doesn’t need them, just as a show of affection.

So you live in Battery Park. Or maybe you live in Chelsea. Or Brooklyn, even. Should you worry? If you do worry, is it more sensible to indulge your fears or to ignore them? There’s no right answer, of course—there are too many unknowns. But for what it’s worth, EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley, who wrote that scathing report, says she’d live downtown: “We take risks every day,” she says. This is just one more. Another part of the new normal.

What about someone like John Walcott? Someone who was right there, on the pile, and is now sick? Do we indulge his fear, if you can call it a fear, that 9/11 made him sick? Perhaps we should, if not for reasons of science, than for reasons of philosophy. Perhaps the least we owe him is to give him the benefit of the doubt.

That’s how Gregory Fried, the former NYPD chief surgeon, sees it. It’s not that he’s convinced cancer clusters are destined to develop around ground zero. Rather, it’s that he can’t say the opposite, and he knows enough about the history of medicine to recognize that one century’s orthodoxy is the next century’s folly. “For 400 years, we thought leeches cured disease,” he says. “For 500 years, humors were the mainstream explanation for most ailments. Up until ten years ago, ulcers were caused by stress. When I was chief resident, I must have taken out 75 to 100 stomachs because of this. And it turns out it’s a germ! A germ! So just because something’s not in the literature or demonstrated or proven yet—so what?”

Fried shifts in his chair. He’s an affable man, pleasant-faced and Long Island–sounding, who looks people in the eye when he speaks. “What happened downtown has never been equaled except, maybe, at Mount St. Helens,” he says. “But that was natural stuff. This was abnormal stuff from the late seventies, a highly toxic soup. No one has a clue how it comes together.”

Too often, says Fried, the onus has been on the cops to prove that 9/11 made them sick. “But what does proof, here, mean?” he asks. “With John Walcott, you got a cause, you got an effect, and if you’re not going to link them, shame on you. The tie goes to the runner.”


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