09/14/2005 04:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Warning From the Big Apple to the Big Easy

A massive disaster combined with government malfeasance has left many citizens in an environmental and health danger of which we don’t even know the extent. Did you think I was writing about New Orleans? Actually, the reference was to Lower Manhattan and the surrounding areas.

The lessons from the toxic fallout unleashed by the collapse of the World Trade Center, and the lack of proper governmental response, should serve as a lesson to the people of New Orleans and the surrounding areas. The parallels between the two cases are eerie.

Just mere days after the fall of the Trade Center, then-Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christie Todd Whitman declared, “I am glad to reassure the people of New York . . . that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink.” Lower Manhattan residents were directed by the agency to clean any World Trade Center dust in their homes and offices with “a wet rag or sponge.”

Yet even as those words were leaving Ms. Whitman’s lips, the building that houses EPA’s New York City office was evacuated and underwent a professional cleaning and abatement for harmful materials. It was later revealed that its own testing showed high levels of heavy metals, asbestos, and other harmful materials in the air. In short, while the EPA knew the area was unsafe, people were rushed back downtown and possibly exposed to a toxic and carcinogenic dustbowl in virtually every interior they entered.

Common sense tells you that water mixed with sewage, chemicals, oil, and human remains cannot possibly be safe, and the Federal government has not attempted to say otherwise. But a similar rush to get back to normalcy – scientific testing be damned – is already showing. Plans are underway to throw a scaled down Mardi Gras in February, and people are being allowed back to parts of Biloxi, Slidell and other areas hit by Katrina that have since been dried out.

Once the dust had settled in Lower Manhattan, people wanted to believe it was safe to return home. Similarly, once the dirty water is pumped out, people will want to believe New Orleans is safe. Mayor Nagin, who I’ve come to respect in the past few weeks, seems caught in that same trap. Already, just like in Lower Manhattan, people are being sent back into areas that haven’t been properly tested, and the Mayor seems eager to send more home. No air monitors have been set up and no soil and dust testing for toxins or other hazardous materials has been done in areas that have been dried out. Sure, most bacteria will be killed by the sun when the waters recede. But sun doesn’t “kill” heavy metals.

The brazen lack of concern for first responders and other rescue personnel in both cases is shameful. As our heroes worked day and night on top of the Twin Towers’ rubble that still smoldered a harsh and toxic smoke and at disposal sites around Manhattan, all they were given was a paper mask to wear on their face – if they were given anything at all. Ironically, the masks were printed with a warning that they would not stop microscopic particles, which is exactly what most of the World Trade Center had been reduced to. Not coincidentally, some months later, a number of first responders came down with what was nicknamed “World Trade Center cough.” Today, over 70 percent of them have been documented to be sick, and some are now beginning to die.

In the areas of the Gulf Coast that were flooded by the hurricane, once again, not a single rescuer has been issued the proper protective equipment. Most shamefully, by suspending the Davis-Bacon law, the government will be able to hire poor and non-union workers to clean up the mess – workers who won’t complain about little things like toxic contamination. Same as what happened in New York.

To this day, four years after the Trade Centers fell, we in New York have no idea the extent of the environmental damage, or how many people are still living and working in spaces contaminated with the hazardous dust. It’s a funny thing about microscopic particles – they burrow their way into wood and fabric and ventilation systems and can be aggravated by things as simple as a stomping foot or by someone sitting down. Yet the EPA still refuses to do scientifically sound, aggressive air testing to determine how unsafe interiors are downtown and in Brooklyn. Many in New York predict the worst: that in 10 years there will be an explosion of “World Trade Center cancer.”

The entire nation saw the government bumble its way through Katrina recovery so far. With high-profile persons’ reputations on the line, it is easy to see why many would want an appearance of a quick return to normalcy in the ravaged areas. Of course, it is easy to see why many of the same people would want the same appearance of normalcy after terrorism hit the world’s economic capital. Public Relations should not rule the day over safety, the same way it did in New York. Workers in the area, at a minimum, must be protected in return for their heroism. Not a single civilian should be allowed back into contaminated areas of New Orleans or any other affected area until the Federal government does its job and performs extensive and aggressive testing of soil and dust for hazardous materials, and does whatever cleanup is necessary.