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Sunday, September 11, 2005

If 9/11 Changed Everything . . . 

. . . then all we have to say is plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose:
Toxic chemicals in the New Orleans flood waters will make the city unsafe for full human habitation for a decade, a US government official has told The Independent on Sunday. And, he added, the Bush administration is covering up the danger.

In an exclusive interview, Hugh Kaufman, an expert on toxic waste and responses to environmental disasters at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said the way the polluted water was being pumped out was increasing the danger to health.

The pollution was far worse than had been admitted, he said, because his agency was failing to take enough samples and was refusing to make public the results of those it had analysed. "Inept political hacks" running the clean-up will imperil the health of low-income migrant workers by getting them to do the work . . . .

He said the water being pumped out of the city was not being tested for pollution and would damage Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi river, and endanger people using it downstream.
Does the scenario above sounds depressingly familiar? It should. Four years ago the EPA, bowing to pressure from the White House, told the citizens of lower Manhattan that the air near Ground Zero -- which contained "concrete, steel, glass, asbestos, plastics, mercury, lead," pulverized and disseminated citywide by the fires that burned for three months after the attack -- was perfectly safe to breathe. Today a coalition of activists and lawmakers led by Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Sen. Hillary Clinton is still begging EPA to clean up the mess:
Alex Sanchez likes to say he's "living proof" the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's response to the September 11 terrorist attacks bordered on the criminal. Sanchez was exposed to dust from the World Trade Center disaster as a cleanup worker in skyscrapers around ground zero. He spent seven months enveloped in the lethal material, wiping it from cubicles, blowing it out of vents. It stung his throat, burned his eyes, and choked his lungs.

"The EPA said the air was safe," he remembers, as the fourth anniversary of 9-11 nears, "and when you read that coming from a government official, you don't second-guess it."

Now he does. Sanchez, 38, of Washington Heights, walks with a cane, hunched in pain, hampered by escalating respiratory problems. Doctors have diagnosed him with musculo-skeletal syndrome and asthma, attributed to exposure to the WTC dust. He takes as many as 23 medications.

Yet what bothers Sanchez isn't so much his own health—"I'm already damaged goods," he says—but the bigger picture. He thinks about people who live and work in the buildings surrounding ground zero, like the ones he used to clean, the ones he worries weren't properly tested for contamination. Residents, office workers, schoolchildren: These are the people who may still be breathing in toxic dust, yet not know it. "I'm afraid there are people who will end up just like me walking around these buildings today," he says.

It didn't take long for those most heavily exposed—the workers who sifted through the rubble and shipped it away—to experience health problems. Almost instantly, the coughing emerged, as did wheezing, throat irritation, and chest pain. Last September, the Mount Sinai Medical Center released data from its 9-11 medical-screening program, which has tested over 14,000 first responders and volunteers. The center reported that 88 percent suffered from at least one WTC-related ear, nose, or throat symptom. Over half endured respiratory ailments for months.

But you didn't have to work on the pile to get sick. Many, like Sanchez, who cleaned the Trade Center dust in downtown skyscrapers have suffered similar illnesses. In 2001, Queens College professor Steven Markowitz, an occupational-health physician, set up a medical van two blocks from the WTC site and screened 415 cleanup laborers. He recorded the coughs, the wheezing, the sore throats. A year later, he found most workers' symptoms were persisting.

Meanwhile, the few studies on residents uncover a wave of damage. In 2003, researchers examining 205 asthmatic children found that those who live within five miles of the WTC site endured more bouts, requiring more doctor visits and medicines. That year, researchers surveyed 2,812 residents and determined that half of them living within a mile of ground zero had developed respiratory troubles.

That anger, in many ways, stems more from the EPA's overall response to 9-11 fallout than from its current plan. Invariably, critics bring up the agency's actions—or lack thereof—within days of the attacks. How administrators proclaimed the air "safe" to breathe. How their assurances provoked employees to return to work and residents to return home. How the agency shirked its mission to protect people from what amounted to a massive chemical spill.

That outrage has only been reinforced over the years. In August 2003, the EPA inspector general issued a scathing 165-page report on the agency's 9-11 response. It disclosed some disconcerting facts—that the White House had pressured the EPA to sanitize its warnings about ground zero, for instance. In effect, the report revealed a whitewash the agency has yet to live down.
More on Mr. Bush's Culture of Life here.

UPDATE: Hugh Kaufman's comments on New Orleans, as you have undoubtedly noticed, come from a British paper. Our white-fanged colleague Buck Batard of Bad Attitudes directs us to another story that has so far gone unreported in the American press, the grim account of a Louisiana doctor who is unlikely to be personally commended by Mr. Bush at his next State of the Union address:
In an extraordinary interview with The Mail on Sunday, one New Orleans doctor told how she 'prayed for God to have mercy on her soul' after she ignored every tenet of medical ethics and ended the lives of patients she had earlier fought to save.
Her heart-rending account has been corroborated by a hospital orderly and by local government officials. One emergency official, William 'Forest' McQueen, said: "Those who had no chance of making it were given a lot of morphine and lain down in a dark place to die."

Euthanasia is illegal in Louisiana, and The Mail on Sunday is protecting the identities of the medical staff concerned to prevent them being made scapegoats for the events of last week.

Their families believe their confessions are an indictment of the appalling failure of American authorities to help those in desperate need after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city, claiming thousands of lives and making 500,000 homeless.

The doctor said: "I didn't know if I was doing the right thing. But I did not have time. I had to make snap decisions, under the most appalling circumstances, and I did what I thought was right.

"I injected morphine into those patients who were dying and in agony. If the first dose was not enough, I gave a double dose. And at night I prayed to God to have mercy on my soul."
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