9/11 Health Crisis: Will the Dust Finally Settle?

“I took chase from this cloud of dust and smoke that was following me. Once it caught me it threw me on my hands and knees. Every time I inhaled my mouth filled up with it, I was choking. I was saying to myself out loud, I didn’t want to die, I didn’t want to die.” – 9/11 ‘Dust Lady’, Marcy Borders.

15 Years Later, Forgotten Victims and a Fragmented Narrative

SB Veda

The recent 9/11 Memorial, fifteen years to the day of the horrific mass murder, honoured the dead as first responders were lauded to throngs of applause. Yet, among them are a subset of the over 1000 survivors and residents of Manhattan, who have died from 9/11 related illnesses since September 11, 2001. Their plight has only recently earned recognition from the US Government.

In May, 2016, faced with the growing health care crisis and a pivotal anniversary looming during an election year, the United States Congress voted to give over 1,000 firefighters and police who were first responders on the day of the attacks, access to the 233 million dollar fund, which was also expanded to include those suffering from 9/11 related illnesses.

The government, after denying that people were exposed to any toxic chemicals in the wake of the twin towers’ collapse, changed their position in 2012. The Obama Administration admitted that fifty cancers have been identified as being caused by exposure to toxic chemicals in the air, released by the imploding structures.

Many see the developments some fifteen years later as too little too late, especially for those who have already died from post 9/11 illness and those who are terminally or seriously ill. In fact, of the 33,000 survivors who have been diagnosed with post 9/11 illness, only 114 have thus far ‘qualified’ for compensation.


Meanwhile, the overall prognosis is not good.

“Within the next five years we will be at the point where more people have died from World Trade Center-related illnesses than died from the immediate impact of the attacks,” said Dr Jim Melius, a doctor at the New York State Laborers Union who also advises the White House on worker health, chairs the steering committee overseeing the government health program for 9/11 responders, and is a member of the advocacy group 9/11 Health Watch.

In the aftermath of the collapse the skyscrapers, the air around the impact zone was saturated with white dust and a thin layer of it powdered all over Manhattan like a dry snowfall. The scene was immortalized by a picture of the ‘9/11 Dust Lady’, Marcy Borders, who was covered from head to toe in white powdered debris. Last year, hundreds mourned her death to stomach cancer, which was most likely contracted from the chilling post-explosion winter. The environment proved far from benign as a light dusting of snow.

In the days that followed 9/11, then head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Christine Todd Whitman, assured the public that the air in Manhattan was safe. The exposed were unaware then that the powder that fell on them, covering their bodies, entering their lungs, was imbued with an array of carcinogenic particles and chemicals such as asbestos, fiberglass, mercury, and benzene, among others. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that 300 to 400 tons of asbestos fibers were used to construct the World Trade Center, which was built at a time when there was no public awareness of the carcinogenicity of Asbestos.

silversteinStill, the government should have known, for since the 1990s, the Port Authority of New York, which was the owner of the WTC before the complex was sold to Larry Silverstein for $125 million (in a capital lease of 99 years), had been trying to get permission to demolish the buildings due to the $200 million renovations that were needed and the potential health hazards of continuing to operate it. The city never granted the permission due the risk of mass asbestos poisoning in a controlled demolition of the Twin Towers.

How fortunate then was it for Mr. Silverstein that he not only didn’t have to invest in the renovations but also profited to the tune of $4.6 Billion from the double insurance policies he had on the buildings? These are policies he had changed during the summer of 2001 to include acts of terrorism. Mr. Silverstein’s foresight proved pragmatic, to say the least, while the refrain from President Bush and his cabinet was that such an attack was unprecedented and could not be anticipated.  This is despite the Pentagon simulating just such an attack less than 12 months prior to 9/11 and VP Dick Cheney being involved in war games simulating multiple hijackings on the very day of the infamous attacks.

Facts such as these stoke the lingering questions that remained unanswered, leaving the narrative around 9//11 to be shorn and disputed.

Despite evidence to the contrary of the Government’s ‘ignorance,’ even if these claims are accepted, few from the mainstream media or establishment dared pronounce that ignorance was not an acceptable defence.

Whitman, only this week, during an interview with the British newspaper, The Guardian, admitted that the air was unsafe and apologized for her misstatements. Surely the words ring hollow a decade and a half since the tragedy. This comes especially as her ‘apology,’ came with a patently false qualification: We did the very best we could … with the knowledge we had.’

Whitman would have the public believe that misleading them with a statement of reassurance without having tested the air is the EPA doing its ‘best.’. Isn’t it the job of the EPA to actually back up such public health statements with actual evidence? It is, after all, a scientific body. Surely they would have been behoved to test the air when the City of Manhattan had refused to demolish the same buildings due to the potential mass health hazard from carcinogens and other toxic chemicals. Such action is in keeping with the minimum standard that the public was owed on 9/11. Not doing the bare minimum could well qualify as the very opposite of ‘best,’ and Whitman dodged taking any responsibility for her role in contributing to deaths of thousands and the suffering of so many more.

To be clear, Whitman claimed that her pronouncements that the, ‘air is safe to breathe and water is safe to drink,” were based on air sampling and testing by EPA scientists but Whitman later testified in congressional hearings that she was talking about the air of Lower Manhattan generally, not Ground Zero specifically. She also said, the Bush Administration did not want to cause panic. Meanwhile, exposed individuals neglected to take precautions, going back to their homes without having them properly cleaned. Her conduct was repudiated by the EPA inspector general in 2003 whose report found that the EPA had no basis for its swift pronouncements about air quality. Politicians, at the time, including the then New York senator Hillary Clinton, accused the Bush Administration of deliberately deceiving the public.

“She (Whitman) caused thousands of residents, workers and first responders to suffer injury and, in some cases, death, due to unnecessary exposure to toxins released by the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who held hearings on the federal government’s management of the crisis at which Whitman testified.

When EPA chemist, Cate Jenkins accused the EPA of deliberately concealing the dangers and covering up the deception, she was  was harassed by her superiors, eventually getting sacked in late 2010 after being accused of physically threatening her supervisor. This was an outrageous claim, for Jenkins, who is a polio survivor, has a petite frame. Her male supervisor was over six feet tall.

whitman-bushIn a rare victory for whistleblowing, a government administrative body, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) ruled Jenkins had been wrongly denied her right to due process on a number of counts. So, Jenkins was reinstated in 2012 with backpay on the grounds that she was denied due process.

However, the ruling did not prevent the EPA from restating their allegations against Jenkins and attempt to fire her once more, which they did in 2013. Jenkins was then required to prove that the EPA fired her for retaliation against her whistleblowing and not for any other reason. Jenkins cannot do this until can’t do that until the conclusion of two pending cases on her whistle-blower claims: one in front of MSPB and another at the Department of Labor. She continues to live with the uncertainty that, one day, the EPA succeed making an example of her, and she will lose her job.

Much of the above occurred while the government (even during the Obama administration) was denying that the air quality in Manhattan, post-9/11, had caused respiratory and other illnesses.


While those waiting over a decade (many without insurance to cover the cost of treatment) continue to queue up for funding, the death  toll is expected to rise. It is fitting then to recall the words of the ‘Dust Lady,’ as she described encountering the dust cloud that eventually killed her:

“I took chase from this cloud of dust and smoke that was following me,” Borders told the Wall Street Journal. “Once it caught me it threw me on my hands and knees. Every time I inhaled my mouth filled up with it, I was choking. I was saying to myself out loud, I didn’t want to die, I didn’t want to die.”

dustladyThe trauma of 9/11 haunted Borders, After feeling the impact at the offices of Bank of America where she had recently started work, she scrambled down the staircase of the North tower, which by then was packed with hundreds of panic-stricken office workers trying to escape. She witnessed people suffering with shards of glass and metal stuck in their flesh, others with burnt skulls as she ran down the stairs. Fire officers came running up the stairs in the opposite direction, shouting: “Run, and don’t look back!”

It took her an hour to reach the bottom, and when she did, she was enveloped in a thick cloud of dust. It drowned out the noise, the activity, the chaos. Everything went quiet and dark. She couldn’t see her hands in front of her face, and while in a daze, was grabbed by a man without a shirt and dragged into the lobby of a nearby building and into safety.

Borders had suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome, and had to leave her job because of it. The faces of the dying haunted her. And, she had a recurring nightmare that Osama bin Laden was trying to kill her in an aerial assault.

The illness forced her to leave her job. To cope, she abused drugs and alcohol abuse, describing the ordeal in a New York Post finally getting help in 2011 in an inpatient treatment centre. Describing her trials to the New York Post in the same year, she was forthright about unequivocal about how low she sank: “It was like my soul was knocked down with those towers. My life spiraled out of control. I didn’t do a day’s work in nearly 10 years, and I was a complete mess.”

She told the Post: “Every time I saw an aircraft, I panicked. If I saw a man on a building, I was convinced he was going to shoot me.”

Soon after, bin Laden began to stalk her in her sleep, leading to the alcohol and drug dependency. In April 2011, she had had enough and checked herself into a rehab clinic. A week into her stay there, the news broke that the man she feared most, bin Laden, had been killed in Pakistan. She finally started to feel some “peace of mind,” and life began to take on a new trajectory. She had found a way to move on from the horror of September 11th.

It came as a cruel irony, then, that just as she was getting her life back, in 2014, she was diagnosed with stomach cancer, one  fifty ailments the government now recognizes as being linked to 9/11 pollution. “Damn!” she is reported to have said. “The shit caught up with me!”

Without adequate health insurance, she was unable to get proper treatment until the Mayor’s office intervened. By then she was almost $200,000 in debt.

With the recent announcements to give compensation to the victims of 9/11 related sicknesses, perhaps the dust will dust has finally settled on the issue. For the family of Marcy Borders, though, it comes as little comfort, and at least a decade too late.

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