In a Fog

The environmental fallout of 9/11

| January / February 2003

WHEN THE World Trade Center collapsed, it produced an enormous cloud of white debris, the likes of which the world had never seen. According to NASA satellite photos, that toxic plume drifted over lower Manhattan, crossed the East River, and spread into Brooklyn, covering everything with substances that scientists are still trying to identify.

The Environmental Protection Agency almost immediately announced that the mysterious fog that thousands of New Yorkers were inhaling was, in fact, harmless. But more than a year later, at least 350 firefighters who worked at Ground Zero are suffering from what has been called ?World Trade Center cough,? and some may be permanently disabled. Meanwhile, incidences of respiratory illness have dramatically increased throughout Brooklyn.

The EPA wasn?t downplaying the bad news in its initial reports, writes Laurie Garrett in the liberal political magazine The American Prospect (October 21, 2002). The agency tested for substances known to be harmful?asbestos, PCBs, and the like. But there was no precedent for the kind of pollution created on September 11.

?The World Trade Center cough? appears to be caused by a combination of pollutants not previously known to produce human disease and thus not covered by Clean Air Act standards or subject to EPA monitoring,? writes Garrett. When the towers crumbled, thousands of plate-glass windows exploded, sending microscopic shards of silica glass into the air. This glass fog, combined with other toxic elements like heavy metals, concrete, and partially burned jet fuel, was extremely alkaline, with a pH level as high as 11.5?far exceeding the 4.0 pH level of human lungs. According to Dr. Kerry Kelly, New York Fire Department?s chief medical officer, this alkaline cloud caused victims? airways to constrict and become hypersensitive to all inhaled particles, leaving them with a dry cough.

The disabled Ground Zero firefighters are eligible for health services from the federal government, as are any other victims living in Manhattan, Garrett notes. But Brooklynites suffering from the illness will have to fend for themselves. Not only does the government not recognize victims beyond Manhattan, it didn?t even bother to monitor the fallout across the river.

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