NEW YORK, NY – In multiple interviews union leaders representing 9/11 World Trade Center (WTC) first responders and the survivor community urged Mayor Eric Adams to quickly comply with the request of Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Rep. Jerry Nadler to release any city documents pertaining to the air quality in an around lower Manhattan in the immediate aftermath of the attack, and during the several months of the clean-up that ended in May of 2002.
According to Maloney's office, Adams has committed to sitting down with the two House members who have championed the 9/11 World Trade Center Health Program as well as the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. More than 20 years later, more people have died from their exposure to the ambient toxics in the air than died on the day of the attack itself.
Maloney chairs the powerful House Oversight Committee and Nadler heads the House Judiciary Committee. The pair will face off in a free-for-all primary next month.
In 2003, the EPA Inspector General was harshly critical of how the EPA, under the leadership of former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman, downplayed and actually misrepresented the hazards in and around the World Trade Center site.
'SAFE TO BREATHE'
At the time, the Giuliani administration did not contradict the EPA's pronouncements that the "air was safe to breathe." For a number of years, into Mayor Bloomberg's tenure, the city steadfastly dismissed the occupational health concerns expressed by the unions representing workers who were on the front lines of the response and clean-up that was competed in May of 2002.
"Release of these documents is long overdue. We need to know what the Giuliani Administration knew, and when they knew it, about the toxic air that permeated lower Manhattan for months after 9/11," said Council Member Gale A. Brewer (D-Upper West Side). "I'm grateful that Mayor Adams, a 9/11 responder himself, has agreed to work with Reps. Maloney and Nadler to release these records. Over two decades later, we shouldn't have to be arguing about this."
John Samuelsen is the International President of the Transport Workers Union, which includes TWU Local 100, the union for the MTA that runs New York City's buses and subways. Thousands of Local 100's members played a largely unheralded role on the day of the attack and during the months of the clean-up when they used their specialized skills to clear debris and re-establish mass transit in what had been a war zone. As of last year's 9/11 ceremony Local 100 has lost close to 200 members to WTC illnesses.
"Even after 20 years when we see press reports nearly every other day about a 9/11 responder or survivor who dies from their 9/11 condition, their families should know what the Giuliani administration knew about the health risks associated with the toxins at Ground Zero."
"Whitman lied and when the final history is written she will have the blood of thousands staining her hands," Samuelsen said in an email. "Over 20 years have passed since the attack on NYC , and workers and their families deserve to see the proof of her treacherousness."
"Even after 20 years when we see press reports nearly every other day about a 9/11 responder or survivor who dies from their 9/11 condition, their families should know what the Giuliani administration knew about the health risks associated with the toxins at Ground Zero and when did they know it," said Benjamin Chevat, the executive director of 911 Health Watch, a non-profit advocacy group.
Joseph Zadroga, is the retired chief of police of North Arlington, NJ. His son NYPD Detective James Zadroga, for whom the original 9/11 bill was named, died in 2006 from his World Trade Center-related health issues.
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"We didn't get the acknowledgement people were getting sick until after he died," Zadroga said. "Luckily, he died in New Jersey so when the Medical Examiner did the autopsy he put on the death certificate he died of all of the contaminants from 9/11 and that blew it all wide open. Prior to that, all the editors and producers — Senators — members of Congress — anybody you would talk to — they were told to leave the story alone."
At a particular low point right after Zadroga's death, Mayor Bloomberg went so far as to say that Zadroga was not a hero, but a drug addict. He subsequently apologized to the Zadroga family.
Currently, the federally-funded World Trade Center Health Program, which faces an uncertain financial future without additional appropriations, has 83,371 first responders and 32,724 civilian survivors who lived, worked or were going to school in lower Manhattan and portions of western Brooklyn. WTC Health Program participants suffer from dozens of cancers and chronic respiratory diseases, as well as psychological conditions.
The renewed Congressional request, first made of then Mayor Bill de Blasio in September of 2021, comes as the debate about former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's credibility intensifies surrounding his role in the events leading up to the January 6 Capitol Insurrection, President Trump's efforts to allegedly bully Georgia's election officials to award him unearned votes, and a more recent incident involving an alleged assault by a grocery worker in Staten Island.
Efforts to reach Giuliani for comment through the public relations firm associated with WABC 770 Radio, his current broadcast outlet, were unsuccessful.
Three days after the 9/11 attack, Christine Todd Whitman, then-head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told reporters that "the good news continues to be that air samples we have taken have all been at levels that cause us no concern" — an assessment not contradicted by City Hall at the time, which had prioritized a quick clean-up of what had been some of the city's most valuable real estate because of its proximity to Wall Street.
Two years later, an independent investigation by the EPA Inspector General found that the agency "did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement" when it did.
"Air-monitoring data was lacking for several pollutants of concern," the Inspector General concluded. The report stated that President George W. Bush's White House Council on Environmental Quality heavily edited the EPA press releases "to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones."
The IG found the White House Council on Environmental Quality described the readings as just "slightly above" the limit, despite the fact samples taken indicated asbestos levels in lower Manhattan were double or even triple the EPA's limit.
When the agency watchdog tried to determine who had written the reassuring press releases, investigators "were unable to identify any EPA official who claimed ownership," because they were told by the EPA Chief of Staff there was "joint ownership between EPA and the White House," which gave final approval.
U.S. Reps. Maloney and Nadler cited those finding by the EPA IG in their original letter to de Blasio, writing, "This report outlined what the federal government knew about the extent of the problem and the clear health threat, after the EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman had repeatedly said that the 'air was safe to breathe.' However, we have yet to see a full accounting of what then-Mayor Giuliani and his administration knew at the time."
In Congressional testimony in 2019, a leading World Trade Center medical expert testified there could be as many as 20,000 more cancers as a consequence of exposures to the contaminants that were released by the collapse of the Twin Towers and fires that burned for months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
At the time of that initial correspondence, the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund had reported it had received 3,900 death claims related to WTC health conditions, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated 3,311 people enrolled in its WTC Health Program had died.
Three-hundred-forty-three members of the FDNY perished in the 9/11 attack. In the 20 years since, close to 300 more members have died from their WTC-linked illnesses. In Congressional testimony in 2019, a leading World Trade Center medical expert testified there could be as many as 20,000 more cancers as a consequence of exposures to the contaminants that were released by the collapse of the Twin Towers and fires that burned for months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She also said more than 50-percent of the Firefighters who logged time at the site have a "persistent respiratory condition."
Those disclosures were made by Dr. Jacqueline Moline, director of the Northwell Health Queens World Trade Center Health Program at the June 11, House committee hearing in Washington D.C. on reauthorizing the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. Dr. Moline told the House panel that the WTC Health Program had seen an exponential increase in numerous cancers and that "soon the day will come when there are more people that died of WTC-related diseases after 9/11 than perished that horrible day [2,973]."
Some of the most-common cancers documented include prostate, lung, breast [both female and male], and thyroid.
Responding to follow-up questions from Rep. Nadler, Dr. Moline said cancers were only part of the WTC health fallout. "We are going to see folks with lung diseases that require lung transplants," she said. "There have already been a number of individuals in the World Trade Center Health Programs that have required lung transplants from the glass and the concrete and everything else that caused a reaction in the lungs."
FDNY Lt. James McCarthy is president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, which represents the FDNY's officers. He recalls how his members ate and drank in and around the toxic site for months under the assumption the air was safe to breathe.
"Our position would be that we need to have all the information that's available out for the public to see. We already know because of the lung cancers and lung illnesses all of our members have experienced, that the exposure to that air and the toxics in the air caused them to get sick — that's a direct correlation," he said during a phone interview. "We just need the actual proof which exists because they tested the air and they had monitoring sites down there, but they just never gave us that information until they made the announcement the air was fine. And that was kind of an operational decision [rather] than a health issue."
McCarthy continued to make the case for swift city transparency. "In order to treat people for the illnesses you need to find out how they got them and what caused it, so having an idea of what toxins were in the air could help you diagnose and treat people that get ill. If you don't know what they were exposed to it makes it more difficult. You are treating the illness for what you saw at the time instead of what caused it."
The UFOA President said his concern extended beyond his rank and file and other first responders.
"I am really coming from the point of we really need to treat everybody and make sure we provide the proper medical care that's guaranteed under Zadroga that's now losing out in the funding. We need to know what caused these illnesses — what exposure, what chemicals, what products that caused these diseases. It's everybody who was there. The people that came down there on their own to help out are one category, and then there are those that lived there and worked there. The best thing you can do for these illnesses is early detection and treatment for survivability and that's what the government owes its citizens of the country. We don't limit this to just the people that pay dues."
Uniformed Firefighters Association President Andy Ansbro agrees with McCarthy that there was no reason for any delay in fully disclosing what the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations knew about the level of contamination in around the WTC site, and the risk to first responders and the broader community.
GIULIANI WAS WARNED
Ansbro's father, Michael Ansbro was NYPD Transit Bureau Chief on 9/11, and according to the UFA leader was with Giuliani after the first WTC tower collapsed on Barclay Street. According to the UFA president, his father personally advised the mayor that based on his experience from the previous 1993 WTC bombing, asbestos would be in the air. "That's when a porter went to the closet and found painter masks that he handed out and that's how Giuliani ended up with the painter's mask in the morning….something he wouldn't be seen wearing at the site during the clean-up because it made him look weak. Kind of ironic when you consider the significance of our public officials wearing a mask during COVID," Ansbro said.
With the fate of the second tower very much in doubt, Ansbro says the Mayor and his entourage headed north out of the "fall path" of the remaining tower while "my father proceeded to the subway station at Chamber Street to assist in the evacuation when the second tower dropped while he was under Chamber Street but survived the second collapse."
Ansbro's father is now gravely ill with 9/11 WTC-related mesothelioma.
For the younger Ansbro, then a probationary firefighter, 9/11 would be his first working fire. "My lung capacity went from 94-percent in December of 2000 to 68-percent in December of 2001, and I have been diagnosed with asthma, COPD and other 9/11-related diseases," he said.
Ansbro recalled that even after 9/11, the union had to hire an independent environmental consultant attorney named Joel Kupferman who conducted independent testing of FDNY fire apparatus, as well as firehouses, and found troubling asbestos readings. "If you rode in one of those pieces of equipment up to a year after 9/11 you had an exposure," he added.
"The worst thing the city did was not clean the firehouses — that's the indictment against the city and part of the story is the hard data that we did get that indicated contamination was totally at odds with what their websites were saying," Kupferman said. "The city is equally culpable along with the EPA for mischaracterizing the contamination that was present and not acting on what we did.
Joe Colangelo, president of SEIU Local 246, represents the city's auto mechanics, also argues for full transparency by the city. "What could be the possible justification for not disclosing this information?" Colangelo asked during a phone interview.
His members were not in the WTC hot zone, but were exposed at the locations where they worked on the city's fire engines, police cars, and street sweepers that were used in the hot zone and were heavily contaminated with WTC toxins as a result. "The mechanics were changing air filters — the air filters were being changed constantly — and the sweepers that they used to sweep the streets down there were being repaired at a Department of Sanitation garage that was just north of Canal Street and we said, wait a minute, we are being exposed to the same toxins."
Colangelo added that some of the equipment like the fire apparatus that was covered with debris during the attack and collapse, went to private contractors to get cleaned, but his "members would open up the door panels to service the equipment and all that dust and debris was inside the panels of the equipment's doors. That stuff went everywhere."
Local 246 lost six members to 9/11 WTC illnesses.
Lila Nordstrom was a senior at Stuyvesant High School, directly adjacent to the WTC on 9/11 and is now enrolled in the WTC Health Program. She wants the city to disclose what it knew and when. In the years since she founded StuyHealth, a non-profit advocacy group committed to informing the close to 19,000 K-12 students who were sent back into dozens of city schools located inside the WTC contamination zone about their potential health risks.
"I'm eager for anybody to finally get moving on this so I'm hopeful," Nordstrom said. "This seems like it's been getting back-burnered for a while, and I think that if we really want to learn lessons from the failings of our government after 9/11 [lessons that certainly have relevance to the mishandling of the COVID crises] we have to be fully transparent about how those policy failings after 9/11 happened in the first place and what activists need to look out for and ask for in the future."
Micheal Barasch, a leading 9/11 attorney, said the city had a "moral obligation" as an employer to fully disclose what it knew and when it knew it about the conditions in and around lower Manhattan on 9/11 and in the months after the site was being remediated.
"If we learned that our city and other government agencies lied to us, why should we believe them next time unless they were to come out and say we were wrong — we should have shared this information — It's a trust issue," Barasch said. "What the city can do now that would make a difference as one of the biggest employers in lower Manhattan for their transgressions two decades ago, by reaching out to their former employees and letting them know what benefits are available to them."
COSTS FOR CARE MOUNT
"Its important we obtain all the 9/11 facts and information so we don't repeat the mistakes that were made," wrote Vincent Variale, president of DC 37 Local 3621, which represents the FDNY EMS. "It is equally or more important to provide the health and financial assistance to those still suffering from WTC illnesses."
Without an additional appropriation from Congress, the 9/11 WTC Health Program will run out of money. Initially, the additional funding for the program was incorporated in President Joe Biden's Build Back Better $1.8 trillion proposal which floundered in the U.S. Senate.
9/11 WTC advocates are now lobbying for passage of the bipartisan 9/11 Responder and Survivor Health Funding Correction Act.
According to a CDC fact sheet, the shortfall in the program was partly the result of a "significant" spike in the number of first-responders and survivors who have enrolled for the annual screening and health care. The program's costs also substantially increased due to "the number of cancer cases it certifies and treats," according to the CDC.
"Of the approximately 65,000 WTC Health Program members with at least one certification, almost 24,000 [more than 36-percent] have at least one cancer certification," the agency disclosed. "The complexity of treating cancer, especially with other comorbidities, and an aging membership in general, has increased the Program's health-care costs beyond what was previously estimated."