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Saddest of words, News told you so
By Juan Gonzalez, Daily News, May 25, 2004

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.



This article contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my efforts to advance understanding of democracy, economic, environmental, human rights, political, scientific, and social justice issues, among others. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material in this article is distributed without profit for research and educational purposes.

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