11/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Lingering Disgrace

Eight years on, and Mayor Rudy Giuliani's words still resonate. Asked on September 11th, 2001, what our losses would turn out to be, Giuliani replied, "More than we can bear."

As we pause once more to grieve the senseless deaths of 2,998 people, we must also acknowledge that the losses of September 11th have not stopped.

The rescue workers who rushed to the wreckage, the people who stayed to clean up the pile, residents of the apartments and co-ops ringing the World Trade Center, and people who simply went back to work downtown - thousands of them have been sick since 2001, many continue to get sicker, and many are dying. And much of this pain and illness could have been prevented, if the Environmental Protection Agency and its then-director Christie Todd Whitman had not lied about the air we were breathing.

In August, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study showing that first responders and New Yorkers who lived or worked near the World Trade Center suffer asthma at a rate of twice that of the general population.

The Mount Sinai Medical Center study has shown that a third of first responders have diminished lung capacity, 70 percent of them have serious respiratory illnesses - and 40 percent of them are uninsured.

And then there are the truly harrowing reports of large numbers of rescue workers diagnosed with myeloma, a rare blood cancer.

When the Twin Towers collapsed, everyone remembers the huge dust clouds. What many don't know is how long that dust lingered. For months, it was everywhere - it clung to walls and windows; it lay thick on sidewalks and floors, constantly churned by the moving people and machinery of the recovery; it hid in ventilation systems and cracks and crevices.

And beneath the World Trade Center, fires raged for three months and flared up again and again through the winter and spring of 2002, spewing out smoke you could see and smell as far north as 96th Street, seven miles away.

What we were breathing was oil, asbestos, mercury and benzene, (which kills bone marrow and causes leukemia and other cancers), with a chaser of pulverized glass.

You could smell it. You could taste it. So many people who spent time south of 14th Street developed a dry, hacking cough that we nicknamed it the "Downtown Cough."

Yet Whitman and the EPA denied anything was amiss.

The levels of lead, asbestos and volatile organic compounds in air samples taken on Tuesday in Brooklyn, downwind from the World Trade Center, were not detectable or not of concern.

-- EPA press release, September 13, 2001.

EPA is greatly relieved to have learned that there appears to be no significant levels of asbestos dust in the air of New York City.

-- Statement by Christie Todd Whitman, September 13, 2001

Our tests show that it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York's financial district.

-- OSHA spokesman, September 16, 2001

The good news continues to be that the air samples we have taken have all been at levels that cause us no concern.

-- Christie Todd Whitman, September 16, 2001

EPA Administrator Christie Whitman announced today that results from the Agency's air and drinking water monitoring near the World Trade Center and Pentagon disaster sites indicate that these vital resources are safe.

-- EPA press release, September 18, 2001

Really? Now let's hear from New York Daily News writer Juan Gonzalez:

Toxic chemicals and metals are being released into the environment around lower Manhattan by the collapse of the World Trade Center towers and by the fires still burning at Ground Zero, according to internal government reports obtained by the Daily News.

Dioxins, PCBs, benzene, lead and chromium are among the toxic substances detected in the air and soil around the WTC site by Environmental Protection Agency equipment - sometimes at levels far exceeding federal standards, the documents show.

EPA monitoring devices also have found considerable contaminants in the Hudson River - in the water and in the sediment - especially after it rains.

-- Toxic Nightmare at Disaster Site, Juan Gonzalez, October 26, 2001

As much as 180,000 gallons of flammable oil - roughly equivalent to 10 times the amount of jet fuel in the two airliners that crashed into the twin towers - may be feeding the fires that have been burning for more than two months at the Trade Center site.

... officials say they don't know whether the contaminants seeped into the soil, burned or drained off into the Hudson River.

-- Major Oil Spills at Ground Zero, Juan Gonzalez, November 29, 2001

Asbestos contamination inside buildings near the World Trade Center site may be far worse than government officials have reported, according to a new study by a top private toxicology firm.

Even as they were reassuring the public, EPA officials distributed respirators late last week to their employees in the Federal Building. The handouts came in response to complaints from the employees of terrible air quality in the building, a few blocks from the Trade Center site.

-- Asbestos Higher In Newer Test, Juan Gonzalez, October 9, 2001

Despite Gonzalez's dogged reporting, and the almost immediate spike in respiratory ailments from people living and working around Ground Zero, the EPA continued to deny the threat.

And the Giuliani administration joined in. The mayor criticized Gonzalez and disputed his articles. Giuliani's administration set a dangerously low bar for declaring the buildings around the World Trade Center safe to re-enter, and even joined with the state in offering cash incentives to people who moved into apartments near the burning pile.

Despite being able to taste and smell the truth, New Yorkers could not stop the lie from claiming casualties. Almost immediately, people began streaming into the Disaster Assistance Center where I worked, asking for help with a variety of toxic-air related problems - problems FEMA could not deal with, because according to the EPA, the air was safe.

Like the M. family, who lived between Ground Zero and one of the piers where barges were loaded with World Trade Center wreckage. Smoke from the fires underneath the pile blew through their windows on the south, while dust clouds from the garbage barge drifted in from the west. The family's two children, previously healthy, developed asthma, and they sought to relocate temporarily, until the fires were extinguished and the debris hauled away.

But as long as the EPA said the air was fine, federal regulations prevented FEMA from calling the family's building unsafe, so it denied their application for housing assistance. They stayed for months, until the children began having daily asthma attacks. The Red Cross, the United Way, and the Salvation Army helped the family pay its medical bills and move to another neighborhood.

Then there was "Emma," a paralegal who worked at 1 Liberty Plaza and who repeatedly collapsed in respiratory distress every time she tried to go to work. When the EPA declared that the smoke and fumes weren't hazardous, it cleared the way for people to live and work near Ground Zero. This meant that, despite what their own lungs might have told them, the owners of 1 Liberty Plaza could not receive disaster compensation for lost rent if they kept the building closed. So of course, it reopened - on October 24, 2001 - and thousands of people returned to work, including Emma.

Well, she tried anyway. She fought for air every day, and went into respiratory distress too many times to count. She was rushed to several different emergency rooms, and each time she was misdiagnosed. Because of the EPA's declarations, the doctors who treated Emma after each collapse did not screen her for respiratory illnesses caused by toxins.

After several hospitalizations, and one particularly close call when she stopped breathing on the C train, a doctor studied her lungs more closely and diagnosed Emma with chemical bronchitis, a condition more often seen in people who work in industrial plants, handling poisons.

By then, Emma's law firm had fired her. The September 11th Victims Compensation Fund at that time refused to include people with respiratory injuries, as did the American Red Cross and the United Way. The Salvation Army and another church-based group helped Emma and her two sons move out of state.

And we saw "Lynn," who developed a migraine every time she tried to enter her apartment blocks from the site, even after she paid to have it thoroughly cleaned. She did not have a previous history of migraines.

Whitman's false declarations also prevented triggering federal rules that would have required building owners to painstakingly remove the dust from crevices, ventilation systems, water tanks. Instead, all that landlords had to do was hire a run-of-the-mill housecleaning service to vacuum the hallways, wipe down the surfaces, and call Ollie Ollie Oxen Free. Lynn's doctor suspected her migraines were caused by toxins left in the air ducts, recycled through the vents, and refreshed by the fires. The EPA's lie also prevented FEMA from considering Lynn's building unsafe, so it denied her application for housing assistance.

Four years before Hurricane Katrina, the Bush and Giuliani Administrations looked at a disaster, and the hazardous ripple effects following in its wake, and chose to protect commerce, sacrificing public health and safety.

We cannot go back and erase the lies. But we can do better by the people battered by the enduring fallout.

Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, (both D-New York), have sponsored the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which would screen and treat the cops and firefighters, medics and nurses, demolitions experts and ironworkers, civil engineers and volunteers, everyone who rushed to Ground Zero to rescue the injured, who stayed throughout the recovery, and who are now sick. The federal government's reticence to care for these heroes has been a lingering disgrace, and passage of the Maloney-Nadler bill would finally put a stop to that.

The bill would also provide treatment to people like Lynn and the M. family, and the cleaning crews hired to vacuum their buildings, who continue to struggle with serious medical problems caused by the disaster and the subsequent lies about air quality.

And it would re-open the Victims Compensation Fund and direct it to consider the claims of people like Emma, whose primary injury is a chronic respiratory disease and who were exposed to the toxic fumes and dust anytime in the first year after the terrorist attacks.

Malone and Nadler's bill made it out of committee just before the August break, but it's got a long way to go. And with the health care reform frenzy, it's at risk of languishing for three months and dying a quiet death. Today, in the time it takes to light a candle and set it in your window, you can help keep it alive by looking up your local Congressman's phone number, picking up your phone, and asking them to vote for it.

It's right and good that eight years later, we still stop to mourn our unbearable losses. But let us also step up and stop them from accumulating, too.