By Dan Rosenblum
For many people in New York, the pain lives on.
That pain is shared by survivors, rescue workers, residents and thousands of others. Since 9/11, a bureaucratic tangle of agencies, support groups and academic studies tried to help the victims and analyze the disaster’s toll. But the health effects on area residents, particularly children, may be incalculable.
Academic studies and city officials estimate up to 400,000 people were exposed to dust from the World Trade Center disaster. “According to “Schools of Ground Zero,” by Sarah Bartlett and John Patrarca, 6,000 of those affected were children from seven schools near the Twin Towers.
As the cloud of debris spread through Manhattan, it covered buildings, blanketed people’s clothes and filled ventilation systems. Fires at the site burned for months, adding even more pollutants to the air.
According to research collected by Claire Calladine of 9/11 Health Now, a group that conducts outreach for rescuers suffering health effects, building materials such as concrete, asbestos and crushed glass combined with chairs, computers, lights and other fixtures and furniture. It created “a toxic chemical dust the likes of which had never been encountered in human history.”
Thomas Cahill, a researcher at University of California Davis, found that sulfur and silicates permeated the air at an even greater concentration than during the Kuwaiti oil fires in the Gulf War. Soon after 9/11, rescue workers – as well as residents, students and area employees – began reporting health complications.
A recovery process surrounded the cleanup. The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation offered people incentives to move back. Schools enticed kids with coupons to local stores. Hughes said that meanwhile, every area still had dust, including streetlights, grates and rooftops.
As of Sept. 12, 2001, the focus of the Community Board 1 shifted from dealing with things like new streetlights to dealing with the aftermath of the nation’s biggest terrorist attack.
“The question is do you risk coming back?” Community Board Chairwoman Catherine Hughes said. Hughes, who lives two blocks from the World Trade Center, says residents were given conflicting information about the dust and debris still on its roof a year and a half after the attacks. When the roof was finally cleaned, there was enough dust to fill six garbage bags.
A week after the attacks, the EPA announced the air was safe to breathe. Office workers and residents returned to the Financial District. Soon after, according to Flynn, people reported eye irritation, migraines and rashes. Children developed a range of health problems. Pre-existing health issues like asthma worsened. A Columbia University study on 300 pregnant women in the area found babies were born smaller and likely had a greater risk of genetic defects and cancer.
When the EPA tested carpets at nearby Stuyvesent High School months after 9/11, they found “unacceptably high” levels of asbestos.
“As much as the residents were in the shadows, the kids were even more in the shadows,” said Kimberly Flynn, executive director of 9/11 Environmental Action, a nonprofit studying health effects in the aftermath of the attacks.
Legal battles followed. Several residents sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency for wrongly assuring them that the area was free from contaminants. They did not win their case, but a steady fight resulted in last year’s Zadroga Health Bill, which provided over $4 billion for rescuers’ health costs.
“People were left to their own resources for years and years while the government refused to acknowledge people were sick,” said Flynn.
Flynn said that out of the battles, a sense of community engagement was formed. She said if another disaster or attack happened the community would already be engaged.
“Everything that we’ve got was fought for, tooth and nail,” Flynn said.