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Saddest of words, News
told you so
By Juan Gonzalez, Daily News, May 25,
With the city facing heat from cops and firefighters who say they became sick working at
Ground Zero or the Fresh Kills landfill, we would do well to remember the warnings.
More than two years ago, on Oct. 26, 2001, the Daily News published a front-page story,
"Toxic Zone," by this reporter that created a furor in our town.
The story began "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."
It was based on hundreds of pages of environmental tests taken by our own federal
government - tests that were not made public until The News obtained them through a
Freedom of Information Act request by the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project.
Those tests showed that, in addition to asbestos, dangerous substances like benzene, heavy
metals, dioxins and PCBs were being released into the environment, sometimes at amounts
far exceeding federal safety levels.
The city's political and business leaders immediately tried to kill the messenger.
William Muszynski, then a regional administrator at the federal Environmental Protection
Agency, called it "one of the worst kind [of stories] you can write." There were
only a few "spikes" of high readings for some contaminants - nothing to worry
about, Muszynski said.
Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York City, accused me in a letter to The
News of engaging in "a sick Halloween prank" that only scared the residents and
workers of downtown Manhattan.
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Health Commissioner Neal Cohen also tried to knock
down the story.
"The short-term irritation of eyes, nose and throat that some people ... may feel
does not translate into significant or any long-term health effects," Cohen said.
Former EPA administrator Christie Whitman, then the nation's top public health guardian,
chimed in with a personal rebuttal that The News published.
Our story would make New Yorkers believe "the situation at Ground Zero presents a
major environmental health hazard to area residents and employees," Whitman wrote,
and "that would be inaccurate."
As for any danger to the thousands of workers on the rubble pile, "respirators, when
used properly, protect workers from exposure to contaminants," Whitman wrote.
Amazingly, the same week The News published our Toxic Zone article, another federal safety
agency issued a report blasting officials at Ground Zero because many workers at the site
were not using proper respirators and safety equipment.
Today, our city is dealing with more than 1,000 firefighters and cops who assert they
became sick while working at Ground Zero or the Fresh Kills landfill.
Several cops and firefighters have developed cancer, which they believe is connected to
their time on The Pile. Tests done of city workers at Ground Zero show many were
contaminated with heavy metals like chromium, mercury and arsenic.
Most experts say they would normally expect many more years to pass before cancer
developed from toxic exposures, but everyone realizes that the combination of toxic
exposures at Ground Zero was unprecedented.
Earlier this month, a summary report of dozens of scientific studies on Ground Zero
pollution was published.
The summary begins with these ominous words
"The destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 caused the largest
acute environmental disaster that ever has befallen New York City."
The federal government itself has now admitted that the World Trade Center collapse
represented the largest dioxin release ever recorded. Another group of scientists has
calculated that between 100 and 1,000 tons of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs),
many of them cancer-causing, were dumped onto lower Manhattan by the burning fires.
Giuliani, Cohen, Whitman and Muszynski all are out of office now. The cops, firefighters,
recovery workers and downtown residents who believed their assurances are left to cope
with the aftermath.
Sometimes it takes a while for the facts to come clear.
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