Sergeant Matthew Tartaglia was a fit, strapping man who climbed telephone polls for a living in 2001. After September 11th, he stepped up to help his fellow Americans by joining the all-volunteer United States Search and Rescue Task Force as a counselor and debriefer. He provided much needed psychological relief to the rescue workers at Ground Zero who came face to face each day with the horror of the 911 tragedy, sifting through rubble to locate dead bodies. For his efforts he was given two Gubernatorial Awards.
Since his time working at Ground Zero however, Tartaglia has become incredibly ill like many others who worked at the site. As a counselor set with the task of talking to countless distraught rescue workers, he could not wear a respirator mask to protect him from what he fears was exposure to arsenic gas. At age 32, Tartaglia has already suffered two heart attacks, has had many of his teeth fall out, and has had a variety of respiratory problems.
He recalls the Ground Zero conditions:
There was a flame on that fire until the end, "that pit burned and burned and burned." The pigeons were blackened. Not a piece of glass to be found. What you saw on television wasn't the complete image.
It was working in these toxic conditions that Sergeant Tartaglia believes led to the demise of his team leader who died in January following their time at Ground Zero.
Now in constant physical pain, Tartaglia is laboring to create an organized 9/11 Fund to help those who answered the call of duty after September 11th but have been thus far completely ignored by the government. His hope is that the organization could arrange for yearly check-ups for Ground Zero workers, ensure communication with their personal care physicians, and offer psychological counseling.
Despite public outcries, the Federal Government continues to deny any environmental problems exist as a result of September 11th. No medical help or medical reimbursement is offered to Ground Zero Rescue Workers.
Mr. Tartaglia feels that the EPA's position on the toxic conditions at Ground Zero isn't the only lie the government is telling and "would be amazed if the information that he's seen and what he's just walked through was anything other than an implosion...no way that was the result of the airliner."
Anger builds over EPA’s 9/11 report
Charges of a cover-up hit nerve with New Yorkers
MSNBC | Sept. 11, 2003
By Francesca Lyman
Two years after the World Trade Center attacks, New Yorkers say they’re outraged by reports that the White House influenced the Environmental Protection Agency to downplay hazards posed by the toxic dust that fell in an avalanche over the city. The EPA’s acting chief defends the agency’s actions after the attacks, saying it hopes to be better prepared for “the next time.”
“I pray to God that, as a country, in the event of another terrorist attack, God forbid, we as an agency would be equipped to get the data analyzed and posted to the public,” EPA Acting Administrator Marianne Horinko told MSNBC in an exclusive interview. “All that was a huge challenge to us on 9/11 — coordinating communication among agencies, following incident command. God forbid there is a dirty bomb. I hope everyone knows their battle stations.”
In the early days and weeks of the World Trade Center disaster, says Horinko, there was such chaos that mistakes were inevitably made.
“Did we rush out (too soon) with data? On balance, I think we used our best professional judgment in an atmosphere where people were clamoring for answers.” But the agency wasn’t trying to deceive the public, she claims.
However, a report by the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General released on Aug. 21 states, among other criticisms, that the White House reviewed and even changed EPA statements about public health risks to make them sound less alarming. The report charges that the White House Council on Environmental Quality influenced “the information EPA communicated to the public through its early press releases when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones.” The report cites “reopening Wall Street” and “national security” as reasons for the spin.
‘We were all lied to’
The EPA presented “an overriding message that there was no significant threat to human health” even though there was cause for caution, it concluded.
“When EPA made a September 18 announcement that the air was ‘safe’ to breathe, it did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement,” said the OIG, adding that the agency was missing data on other pollutants, such as particulates and chemicals like PCBs. In addition, 25 percent of dust samples contained asbestos, a potent carcinogen.
Yes, Horinko admits, the EPA did find asbestos in the dust samples. “But the vast majority of the samples we took did not contain it,” she says.
Asked about why people are still suffering ill effects, Horinko said she can understand that rescue workers would still be affected but finds residents’ continued complaints to be “mystifying.”
Even though the the building collapses caused the highest particulate count in the city’s history, the tragic event violated no pollution standards. That’s because the air quality regulations were set up to measure particulate matter loadings over 24-hour periods rather than intense, short-term bursts.
That is cold comfort to many New Yorkers, particularly those still suffering health effects from exposure to the dust.
Kim Todd, an acting coach who lives in lower Manhattan just two blocks from the former World Trade Center, says she’s angry. “I might not have stayed down here — with dust on me for days — had I known of the dangers,” she says. “We were all lied to, and I’m afraid everybody is going to be seriously sick.”
Some fear that “WTC cough,” sinus problems, headaches and other ailments that Todd and others continue to experience, were worsened by government officials more willing to return the city to normalcy and open the Stock Market than protect public health. Doctors, too, worry the event could spur a rash of asbestosis, cancer and other long-term diseases in the future.
Many workers still sick
“For me, it’s very scary. We lost another firefighter, and that makes one in New York and two volunteers who have died of pneumonia. My lungs are totally shot, and I’m afraid that’s what many of us are going to die of,” says Vincent Forras, a volunteer firefighter who answered the call for help, driving down from South Salem, N.Y., to Ground Zero that clear, blue-skied morning on Sept. 11.
Forras and thousands of other rescue workers on “the pile,” who were largely unprotected in those first hours and days, are still sick. Workers got little more than paper masks, if that, and there weren’t enough respirators to go round, recalls Forras, who still suffers severe headaches and ailments stemming from sinus surgery. “It took at least two weeks to get properly equipped. By then we were pretty well cooked.”
“There was a lot of finger-pointing about who was in charge,” says Joel Shufro, director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. “But in the confusion between EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the city Health Department, laws weren’t enforced.”
Workers have to bear some of the blame, says Horinko. “Many did not wear professional gear despite our best efforts.”
But, Forras says, even Mayor Rudolph Guiliani appeared to believe the EPA’s statement and went so far as to stand next to then-EPA administrator Christie Whitman and announce that the air was safe.
“When you have someone of the caliber of Mayor Guiliani saying it, they took that as gospel,” says Forras.
Not all New Yorkers believed that the smells wafting up from the smoldering remains of the two 110-story office towers were as benign as official pronouncements.
“How could something as huge as the World Trade Centers with all their contents — computers, fluorescent lights, plastic chairs, everything — just disappear?” says Todd. “They had to go somewhere.”
Workers at Ground Zero got much higher doses of dust and fumes than residents, says Dr. Robin Herbert, a physician and researcher at Mt. Sinai Hospital who worked on a program that screened and treated rescue workers and volunteers at the site. A year after the attacks, half of the program’s patients — some 7,000 firefighters, police officers and other volunteers — were still sick. While the final count is not in, says Herbert, “a substantial percent continue to have persistent upper and lower respiratory symptomatology — coughs and sinus problems.”
Toxins may linger
Two years after Sept. 11, some downtown New Yorkers are still concerned about the potential toxicity of lingering dust in indoor areas, says Jenna Orkin, of 9/11 Environmental Action, a group formed to address issues many felt literally slipped through the cracks after the disaster when the EPA turned indoor air issues over to the city Department of Health.
After Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) held hearings on the health hazards triggered by the terror attacks, the EPA and city launched a program to clean up people’s apartments, ultimately cleaning more than 4,000 apartments in lower Manhattan. But that program left out the cleanup of schools, offices, workplaces, shops and businesses — and that’s only the beginning of how “wholly inadequate” the program was, Nadler told MSNBC.
“The program was limited to an area south of Canal Street, as though there were a Star Trek force field blocking out the rest of Manhattan and other places, like Brooklyn, where we know the toxic plume traveled,” says Nadler.
The EPA tested and cleaned individual apartments only when people asked, and generally left out central air systems and common areas. “How can you clean one apartment, and not the one next to it?” Nadler asks.
Apartments were tested for only one pollutant: asbestos. The testing method used excluded active testing, which uses a fan to kick up the pollutants lurking in carpets, drapes and corners, unless applicants opted for the most aggressive cleanup, which prohibited the resident from being present (and, some say, discouraged many people from signing up).
Jo Polett, who lives 6 blocks from the trade center site, however, insisted on supervising her job, and made the contractor turn on the “active” test fan when he didn’t even know to. With effort, she learned that her apartment was contaminated with heavy metals, such as antimony and lead (with the lead reading five times the EPA’s standard). Had she opted for “testing only” — which tested only asbestos — she might never have found that out.
Polett, who speaks softly with her new whispery voice, blames her respiratory problems on the toxic dust trapped in her building’s ventilation system. Yet, because there was no visible dust in her apartment, she never suspected a problem until several months after the disaster. Too late, her home was judged “uninhabitable” by FEMA, she said. “I’m frightened by what other people might also be living with,” says Polett.
In a press conference, Nadler also release a memo by EPA scientist Cate Jenkins, a veteran of the Hazardous Waste division, saying that even the most rigorous EPA-led efforts have failed to clean up downtown buildings to federal levels for asbestos and silica, another carcinogen that, she says, could be implicated in “WTC cough.”
Jenkins’ memo states that a building at 114 Liberty Street still has visible dust. She has said that the EPA tested its own offices downtown with more stringent methods. The city Department of Environmental Protection did not return calls regarding its joint cleanups with the EPA, but Jordan Bailowitz in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office said, “The city is not responsible for oversight of what EPA had done to clean up apartments.”
New cleaning efforts urged
Siding with Nadler on this issue, the OIG has urged the EPA to re-launch a new systematic program to make sure the agency’s apartment cleaning does reduce residents’ exposure to indoor pollutants. The OIG notes that in this case, as in future terrorist events, the EPA is tasked under a 1998 Presidential Decision Directive “with the leadership role in cleaning up buildings and other sites contaminated by chemical or biological agents as a result of terrorism.”
But the EPA’s Horinko doesn’t think that’s necessary. “We stand by the job we managed in testing and cleaning up people’s apartments,” she says.
It’s too soon to say if the World Trade Center attack will have long-term health effects on New York residents, says the OIG report, although there are troubling signs. Pregnant women exposed to air pollution from the World Trade Center attacks, according to a preliminary study released in August 2003, face double the risk of delivering babies up to a half-pound smaller than babies born to women not exposed.
Doctors are still treating patients with post 9-11 respiratory problems, says Neal Schachter, a pulmonologist at Mt. Sinai. During the first year, he saw perhaps 15 percent more such patients, but that’s tapering off to between 5 percent to 10 percent more now.
“But I still get a steady stream of patients, including new ones,” he says.
Schachter also worries about the long-term consequences of the pollution that we have yet to see. “With asbestos, as well as other carcinogens, we’re dealing with silent culprits, that have yet to wind up scarring lungs or causing cancer,” he adds.
For some, the OIG report shook their confidence in government. “Accurate and timely information from government is a cornerstone of good public health,” says Mt. Sinai’s Herbert. “By deleting good information to the public — people in their apartments, people on the pile — we lost opportunities for disease prevention.”
Strategic Omissions: The Truth Behind the Health Effects After 9/11
GNN | March 11, 2005
STRATEGIC OMISSIONS investigates impact of 9/11 on the health of rescue workers and lower Manhattan residents and unearths the political cover-up of the findings of the Environmental Protection Agency. The collapse of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center released 2,358 toxins into the air. Most prevalent among those were: asbestos, lead, mercury, dioxins and furans, diesel fuel and oils, benzene and other volatile organic compounds. These toxins are known to cause asthma and upper respiratory allergies and those exposed to them are at heightened risk for numerous cancers. There are 1,700 pending law suits against New York City as a result of exposure; most come from the NYPD and FDNY as a result of working at Ground Zero. STRATEGIC OMISSIONS gives a voice to those heroes of 9/11 who are now sick, due to their exposure to harmful chemicals during the rescue efforts. Heroes whose own government, so quick to invoke their image of bravery and selflessness for their own gain in this all-important election year, has turned its back on the devastating health problems these policemen and women, firefighters and rescue workers now face. STRATEGIC OMISSIONS looks for the truth behind the National Security Council’s manipulation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports, as pressured to do so by the Bush Administration. The White House, seemingly worried about the economic impact of a delay in reopening Wall Street, pressured the EPA to mislead the public by issuing a statement that the air was safe in the downtown area, giving a false sense of security to rescue workers and those living and working there.
14 Search Dogs From Ground Zero Have Died Since 9/11
Associated Press | August 22, 2004
New York -- Fourteen search and rescue dogs who dug through the rubble of the World Trade Center have since died.
Eight of the dogs died from cancer.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine say they don't believe there is a connection between the deaths and the chemicals the dogs were exposed to.
But the New York Daily News says some dog owners blame the mix of chemicals their dogs were exposed to during the hunt for survivors and remains after the attack on September eleventh, 2001.
And the lead author of the study says the surviving dogs will need to be monitored for the rest of their lives. Doctor Cynthia Otto says if they begin to have health problems, there is a good chance that people who worked to clear the site could have problems as well.
Air Pollution and Deception at Ground Zero
How Our Government Allowed Hundreds of Civilians to Breathe Contaminated Air After 9/11
Sierra Club | August 21, 2004
Many people in New York City are sick today because of exposure to the pollution from the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center - not 10 people, not 50 people, but many hundreds of people. Some suffer from shortness of breath, chronic coughing and throat irritation, and some suffer from gastroesophogeal reflux disease.
Many are so debilitated by their physical conditions that they no longer can do their jobs, and most of them can no longer enjoy life as they used to. It is possible that many more will become ill in the coming years. People worry about cancer, weakened immunity, and reproductive effects, and many experts fear that some of these worries may well be justified. No one knows what tomorrow will bring for this exposed population.
Much of the exposure that caused these illnesses, sadly, could have been avoided if our federal government had responded to the crisis of the terrorist attack with proper concern for the people exposed. On August 21, 2003, the Inspector General for the federal Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") released a disturbing165-page report documenting the fact that the White House Council on Environmental Quality blocked health risk information that EPA wanted to release to the public following the September 11, 2001 attack. That, however, is only part of the story.
This report picks up where the EPA Inspector General's report left off. It identifies how not only EPA but also the Federal Emergency Management Agency ("FEMA") and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration ("OSHA") failed the Ground Zero community, misinforming them about hazards and failing to take proper action to prevent exposures. It explains how the "know-nothing" tone of the federal government in this emergency had disastrous consequences for the people who serve on the "front line" of terror response. While news stories emerged as early as October 2001 about firefighters suffering from something called "World Trade Center Cough," most people outside New York are unaware of the wide range of workers and community people who have been afflicted by Ground Zero pollution. This report describes these people, their unmet needs and some continuing exposure risks.
This report documents why the federal government's failures cannot be excused by ignorance, surprise or emergency conditions, or by blaming workers who didn't wear protective masks. It warns that the Bush administration intends to make some of these failures into standard procedure for national emergencies. Finally, it recommends specific steps that the federal administration must take to change course, limit the harm from its failed approach to Ground Zero pollution, and promote better safety for the public in future national emergencies.
Clear the air from 9/11
NY Daily News | May 18, 2004
For nearly a year after 9/11, Ron Vega was part of a team of architects and engineers from the city's Design and Construction Department supervising recovery efforts at Ground Zero.
Like so many workers at the site, Vega was not provided with a proper respirator for the first two months, which would have protected him from the many dangerous chemicals at the site.
For Vega, the heavy cough, headaches, dizziness and rashes started almost immediately. At first, he figured it was just from overwork.
Not until August 2002, after he had left the site and the city tested him for heavy metals, did Vega learn that arsenic and mercury levels in his body were three times higher than is considered safe.
"They tried to tell me I was eating too much contaminated fish," Vega said. "I told them I'm allergic to fish. And no one could explain the arsenic."
Vega says he wasn't alone.
Of some 60 department employees who worked at Ground Zero, Vega said at least 18 have confided to him that their tests were positive.
"We all came back with some level above toxic for specific metals like chromium, mercury, zinc," Vega said.
Amazingly, more than two years after the attack on the World Trade Center, the city has never made public the results of toxic-metal testing of the department's workers - or any Ground Zero workers, for that matter.
Today and tomorrow, the federal 9/11 commission is scheduled to hold hearings on our city's response to the attacks and what officials have learned to help prevent future threats.
Much of the attention will focus on how former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the NYPD, the Fire Department and other city agencies reacted in the hours after the planes hit the twin towers.
We will once again relive the unbearable anguish of a day that claimed nearly 3,000 lives.
But what about the weeks and months after the attack?
Will the commission dare to ask tough questions about why our leaders, at all levels of government, failed adequately to protect the health of recovery workers and thousands of New Yorkers who live or work near Ground Zero?
Two weeks ago, an independent task force of more than a dozen top medical experts released a summary of all known scientific studies on the public health effects of the collapse.
That 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 report goes on to document some of what we already know: that a high percentage of firefighters and rescue workers who were assigned to Ground Zero, and even some community residents, are still suffering from coughs and respiratory problems two years later; that pregnant women who were either inside or near the towers on 9/11 showed "a two-fold increase" in undersize babies.
And it makes clear that years will pass before we can say for sure what the long-term public health impact will be from the pollution released at Ground Zero.
The tone of that report is a far cry from the "air is safe to breathe" assurances given to all of us in the days after the attack from Christie Whitman, the former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, or from Giuliani and his former health commissioner.
Last year, an investigation by the EPA's inspector general concluded that the agency misled New Yorkers about any possible health dangers from the disaster and still has failed to do a proper cleanup of lower Manhattan.
The inspector general even revealed that White House officials rewrote EPA news releases to minimize health dangers.
But EPA is not the only agency that's supposed to safeguard public health. It's also the job of the city's Health Department and Environmental Protection Department, and also of the state's Environmental Conservation Department.
Let's hope the 9/11 commission asks Giuliani and other former city officials not only what they did to protect human life on that terrible day but what they did to protect recovery workers and the public in the many months that followed.