This Concern I Have (Brooklyn, February 2002)

Lately I’ve been having this experience. Maybe you’ve been having it too.

I read about firefighters at Ground Zero who are now on sick leave, with asthma, emphysema, lung irritation. I read about illegal immigrants who worked cleaning up the dust, and who now report nosebleeds, breathing problems, and menstrual irregularities. I hear stories about ordinary people simply working in office buildings in the financial district, or living in Brooklyn Height, who have chronic upper respiratory infections and sinusitis.

And I wonder why more is not being said. I wonder how safe I am. How safe any of us are. We all smelled the smoke, not for days or weeks, but for months. Who knows what was in it? Who knows what the long-term repercussions will be?

And my friends look at me, and nod, and say, “Uh-huh.” As if to say, “Why are you so concerned?”

Concerned? You might say that.

You might say that Rachel Carson was concerned about the environment. And you might say Ralph Nader was concerned about the Ford Pinto, or Karen Silkwood was concerned about nuclear power plants.

So yes I am concerned. I am concerned that when all is said and done, the destruction of the World Trade Center will be remembered not just as a day which will live in infamy, but as one of the worst environmental disasters in American history. I am concerned that in its efforts to minimize disruption and inconvenience and economic loss, our government is grossly understating the dangers which we now face. And I am concerned that our anger at terrorism will eventually become overshadowed by anger at our own government which, in the face of overwhelming scientific data, and fully aware of the consequences of its actions, sat back and did nothing.

Already the signs have been coming in; health problems from workers at Ground Zero. Health problems from workers who cleaned up the dust which accumulated near Ground Zero. You know the story as well as I do — you’ve seen it often enough, in movies and television. It begins with a problem in town — a fuel processing plant has a fire, or a nuclear plant has a leak, or a factory is leaking hexavalent chromium into the water.

See if you can finish the story with me now. First, the officials hold press conferences to assure us that everything is fine, and we are perfectly safe. As people start developing strange, lingering coughs, we are told that our symptoms are normal, temporary, and nothing to worry about.

Next the strange things begin. Irregular periods; unexplained pain; chronic fatigue. Again, we are told, nothing to worry about. Certainly not related to anything in particular.

New symptoms start. Miscarriages, birth defects. In a few years, childhood cancers, breast cancers, cancers of the liver. Eventally, enough people start dying. Eventually, the ones who are left become angry. Eventually, they start asking questions.

Ah, you say, but you are overreacting. Just because firefighters and those working in close proximity to Ground Zero are having symptoms, does not mean that all of us will.

Here is my question: do you know of an environmental disaster with devastating short-term side-effects which did not also have devastating long-term side effects? Are the people in Bhopal, India fine now? Or the ones who lived in Love Canal? Or the Vietnamese who were sprayed with Agent Orange? Point me to a story where something happened — where residents were sick for weeks, or for months — in which they were not later sick with cancer 5 or 10 years down the road, and I will relax. Point me to a short-term chemical catastrophe without devastating long-term consequences, and I will let down my guard. Show me even one situation like this, and you will make me a happy woman. But in the meantime, I will remain what I am — concerned.

And since I am concerned, I want to start asking questions now. Questions like, Why is it, that when the Hudson river and its environment are full of PCB’s, the area is a Superfund site, but when the World Trade Center and its environment are full of PCB’s, and mercury and lead and benzine and asbestos and God knows what else, we are told to go downtown and shop?

Why is it that the environmental focus, such as there is, is solely on Ground Zero, when smoke was in the air as far south as Bay Ridge; as far East as Long Island; and as far north as Inwood? Do we believe cancer-causing chemicals are polite enough to stop at 14th street?

Why is it, that the government assures us it is safe to live and work and breathe here, and will only change that statement in the face of unequivocal proof? Should it not, for the health and safety of our citizenry, be the reverse?

Unfortunately, I have the answers to all these questions. Or rather, the answer, one word. And that word is: money.

If the government declared New York a Superfund site, it would be a disaster. An economic disaster of the highest order.

Right now, we none of us should be living here. We should be moving to places which don’t leave an acrid aftertaste in the mouth. We should be moving to places where news reports don’t regularly frighten us. We should be moving to places where we don’t have to scrub the ash off our own windows with nothing but ammonia and elbow grease.

But we don’t. We don’t because we believe, if it really were dangerous, if it really were unsafe to continue living and breathing here, someone would let us know. The government would let us know. Our government would let us know. The same government that exposed soldiers to nuclear weapons tests; the same government that allowed black men to die of syphilis in Tuskeegee; the same government that used Agent Orange — our government would incite untold upheaval and economic brouhaha by declaring the entire island of Manhattan a toxic hot spot, and they would order a general evacuation. This is what our government would do, if it were in our best interest.

Well, I don’t believe it either. But I tell it to myself at night, and it comforts me as a shield against my fears, which loom so large and feel so unyielding that I feel completely helpless most of the time. I waver every day between hysterical alarmism or self-inflicted myopia, unsure whether to move or to stay, to call to arms or hope for the best, to make plans to go before it is too late or to tell myself that the worst is over. It is so hard, in a city of 8 million people who continue to live here seemingly unconcerned, to convince myself that everyone else is wrong, and only I am right.

It would be less hard, however, if all these ideas about health threats — as grounded on past evidence as they are — were not solely conjecture. If I could point to studies on the levels of PCBs in the air. If I could use research on the combinations of substances to determine the final toxicity of this petrochemical soup in which we are all now swimming. But on these matters, as on so many others, the government, state and local officials, and the EPA have been strangely silent.

Recently, Senator Clinton called for environmental hearings. This is a beginning. Let it be a beginning of full disclosure. Let us bang down the doors and demand answers. Let us seek out the knowledge to make decisions in our own best interest, so that it may not be said, in ten years or twenty, that the toll of September 11th numbered not in the thousands, but in the tens, or the hundreds, of thousands. Let us demand answers now, before it is too late. And let us show the world what can be accomplished by a citizenry which is mobilized, and active, and very, very concerned.