Friday, 2 September 2011

The other 9/11 victims

With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 coming up, there's the usual focus on the almost 3,000 people who died, but little is said about the 20,000 with serious illnesses caused by exposure to toxic dust and debris.

The health hazards of two massive skyscrapers collapsing and poisonous material spewing all over the surrounding area should have been obvious, yet thousands of emergency workers, volunteers, local residents, cleaners and other tradespeople went about their business for weeks with very little protection.

Now thousands are suffering from a range of disabling illnesses including asthma, sinusitis, muscular and intestinal conditions, lung diseases and memory problems. Many are unable to work or live a normal life.

Up to 80,000 people were present in the aftermath and new patients are coming forward all the time with previously undiagnosed disorders. People are expected to fall sick for at least another 20 years.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that everyone should have been evacuated from the area and proper decontamination teams sent in to remove all the toxic residue. Yet the dust and debris - which included asbestos, lead and mercury - was generally treated as a mere nuisance rather than a major health emergency.

Alex Sanchez is just one example of this peculiar oversight. He helped clean dust from numerous buildings in Lower Manhattan. In only two buildings was he given even a face mask. Now he has severe breathing difficulties, headaches, gastric problems and is no longer able to work. His life has been wrecked just as much as for the families of the dead.

The government has set up a $2.9 billion fund for monitoring, treatment and compensation for the 20,000 plus "other" victims. But the question remains - why was this serious health hazard not clearly recognised in the first place?

PS: Some first responders get help, some don't. Ralph and Barbara Geidel have spent close to $100,000 on his medical treatment since 2003, when the former fireman and first responder was diagnosed with tongue and neck cancer. The Zadroga Act, which set up the compensation fund, doesn't cover cancer. Yet a study in The Lancet says firefighters at Ground Zero are 19% more likely to get cancer than those who weren't there. Ralph's brother Gary died in the World Trade Center attack.

Pic: Alex Sanchez

28 comments:

Scarlet Blue said...

I saw this on the news last night, Nick. It's very sad, but I suppose it was such a shocking experience that people just got on and did what needed to be done without thinking of the consequences.
Sx

Nick said...

Scarlet - That's very true. The sad thing is they were frantically looking for people under the rubble although the victims were all pulverised in seconds.

nursemyra said...

But no one knew or wanted to believe that at the time. I can remember wandering the streets of New York in the days following and seeing hundreds of posters with photos of the missing people. So heartbreaking

John Gray said...

in all of the big disasters it is always the living wounded that suffer the longest..
they survived so they are ignored

Nick said...

Myra - You're right, people simply wouldn't believe it even though all the experienced rescuers knew it straightaway. The sheer weight of all that masonry crashing downwards....

John - Indeed. They're also ignored because they're a lot of trouble to look after. Governments are more interested in the healthy and productive.

Leah said...

the 9/11 Health Registry is very active. We receive questionnaires in regular fashion so they can document First Responders' health in the long-term. I think there are a couple of issues: 1. many many people of the literally millions exposed *haven't* suffered after-effects and 2. It is very difficult to target the actual cause of a syndrome-type illness...you know, constellations of symptoms. The first responders didn't wear the respirators for a variety of reasons--there weren't enough, and anyway they are very hard to work in (poor visibility etc) and most of all--stuff went down too fast to deal w anything but immediate life-or-death stuff. At least that's my take on it.

Leah said...

also the logistics behind evacuating all of lower Manhattan, and my nabe in Brooklyn (we were right in the path of the dust plume)--well, in that population density, it is unthinkable. I imagine the danger and panic of a mass evacuation (and to where?) would far outweigh the danger from the dust. But it's an awful dilemma, isn't it?

Leah said...

I'm even more interested in the long-term psychological problems suffered.


Sorry Nick, of course I find this interesting on a personal note, and can't shut up, LOL

Macy said...

I'm taking heart that they've set up a fund for these survivors.
Money doesn't solve anything, but recognition of the problem certainly does.

Nick said...

Leah - I'm always interested in your views since you often take a completely different line to myself! You make some very good points about the millions who appear to be unharmed, the difficulty of linking syndromes to causes, the speed of events, the life-and-death situation etc. Also the problems with a large-scale evacuation. And yes, I haven't read much about the psychological effects but they must be major.

It does have to be borne in mind that it was a totally unpredictable and shattering event that took everyone by surprise and led to a lot of confusion about how best to handle it.

And please ramble on if there are other points you want to make! As Frazier says, I'm listening....

Nick said...

Macy - Also, as Leah says, it's good that the authorities are keeping such a close watch on the First Responders' health. At least they're not pretending there isn't a problem.

Jenny Woolf said...

I suppose it was just sheer panic. The whole thing was so incredible. SO utterly incredible. But you are right, we do not hear of these people, and it's a puzzle why not.

Nick said...

Jenny - It'll be interesting to see whether they get more coverage as we get closer to the anniversary. And what aspects of the disaster people concentrate on.

secret agent woman said...

There's a system in place for the mental health effects of being a first responder - sort of a worker's comp system. So at least that part is being taken care of.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

It's horrifying, but since an event of this magnitude had never before occurred in the US, nobody could have been adequately prepared for it.

In some ways, it's reminiscent of the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which caused so much serious illness that survivors of those bombings tried to hide that they had been there out of shame, which seems peculiarly Japanese. I have always been fascinated with Japanese culture, art and literature, but survivor shame is foreign to my experience in America, which usually tries to help victims.

Nick said...

Secret Agent - It's good that mental health is also being monitored. There must be a lot of psychological problems along with the physical ones.

Heart - True enough that nobody could have been adequately prepared for such a devastating event. Survivor guilt is supposed to be a very common experience, it's not confined to Japan. There was a lot of it after the Second World War.

Rummuser said...

Nick, I think that it was the American Military that coined the phrase Collateral Damage, in response to civilian casualties. Subsequently, the Alquida, did call these developments as collateral damage too. In the end, in a war of any kind, such things do happen and the solution is to have a world free of strife of any kind. Am impossible dream.

Nick said...

Ramana - Isn't "collateral damage" an absolutely chilling term? One of the most cynical euphemisms I've ever heard. But fanatics with unshakeable beliefs couldn't care less about the human fall-out of their ruthless actions.

Wisewebwoman said...

Nick:
It never ceases to amaze me how the close to 1,000,000 people (many, many children included) who were "collateral damage" in Iraq as the result of the unjustified and illegal invasion of their country due to 9/11 are completely forgotten about. My blood boils. Seriously.
XO
WWW

Nick said...

www - Too true. And for that matter the estimated 50,000 people who have died so far in Libya. And why did Britain get involved in Libya in the first place? To prevent mass slaughter....

Leah said...

I think there are great numbers of people who think of the collateral damage in Iraq etc. Just think how many people are against the wars that followed! Even me--I'm not now, nor was I ever, against the war, and still I don't ignore the fact of civilian casualties.

Nick said...

Leah - There may be people who're seriously distressed about the "collateral damage" but I don't see much sign of them. All the emphasis (in the media at any rate) seems to be on bringing democracy to backward countries and safeguarding oil supplies.

But I'm sure there are many ordinary folk such as yourself and my other American blogmates who are daily sickened by the level of human carnage on the ground.

Liz said...

I heard this on the news recently; the treatment of some is shocking. And the whole related illness thing is something I'd never heard mentioned before.

Nick said...

Liz - For some reason, the media are obsessed with the people who died. Those who "only" have long-term disabling illnesses are apparently not so newsworthy.

blackwatertown said...

There has been a lot of shabby treatment of emergency servives personnel, even as they were being publicly lauded.

Nick said...

Blackwater - I find that public lauding is often a smokescreen for shoddy, indifferent treatment behind the scenes. Like politicians praising the police while they're busy slashing the number of police officers.

Leah said...

Nick, re: your comment to me above, actually, on rethinking, I agree with. It is a sad fact (I mean, not that I agree with you, but that the emphasis is very much away from all the carnage done to civilians)

Nick said...

Leah - Glad you reflected on my comments! I must say the UK media coverage on Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya seems to be more and more on what's being achieved (if anything) and less and less on all the dead soldiers and civilians.