“Everything looks different from way up close.” That’s what one of my former editors used to tell me. I remember thinking about that on September 11, 2001, as I watched stunned office workers, coated in white dust from head to shoes, trudge up West Broadway. One by one, or sometimes in small groups, they emerged blinking and wide-eyed out of the fog of smoke and ash that marked the place where, an hour or two earlier, the towers of the World Trade Center had stood.
From afar, through the mediating distance of television signals and newspaper pages, the September 11 attacks must have looked like a horror movie. Way up close, it felt more like a sucker punch to the stomach: numbing, sickening and deeply confusing.
The Environmental Fallout
I am the environmental reporter for my newspaper, Newsday, but that day I had rushed downtown to fulfill a less specialized journalistic function: I was interviewing survivors and rescuers and was relaying their quotes to the city desk, along with whatever hard news I could glean. Even on that first day, it was obvious there would be environmental implications to the story. The dust was everywhere—stinging our eyes, irritating our throats, and making us spit every minute or two. When the wind shifted our way, it was hard to breathe.
In the weeks to come, the number of purely “environmental” stories about the attacks would gradually increase from a trickle to a steady flow. I contributed several. One of my stories focused on debunking early reports that had claimed there was no asbestos in the towers. Another confirmed that in the days after the attack, local air quality generally complied with federal standards everywhere except right at Ground Zero. Several other stories I wrote pointed out that many rescue and construction workers weren’t taking even basic precautions to protect themselves from fumes at the still-smoldering site.
Those rescue workers were the people who had the longest and most intense exposures to the chemicals emanating from the debris pile. I thought they were the right place to focus coverage—especially because many of the workers, in the feverish turmoil of those early days, were refusing to wear protective equipment even when it was available. I believe environmental health coverage should revolve around risk, and in this story those unprotected workers were the ones at greatest risk.
New York, however, is not the kind of place where risk analysis drives news coverage. Instead, the imperatives of the news business, and the fear, frustration and seething anger of hundreds of thousands of city residents, quickly began to set the coverage agenda. Community groups began doing their own air testing, often cherry-picking a small number of test results to paint a dire picture about the extent of the contamination. Headline-hunting politicians and longtime critics of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got involved, and the EPA offered itself up as an easy target by giving slow and sometimes inconsistent answers about whether the air was “safe.”
Soon, in some of the city’s papers, the “toxic air” story had become a mainstay of local post-attack coverage. Other aspects of the disaster—the mass deaths, the lack of successful rescues after the first day, and the epidemic of depression among city firefighters, to name just a few—were so devastatingly sad, and so inarguably final, that they tended not to make good stories. Neither did the intricacies of public finance and urban planning that were key to the redevelopment of the site.
The environment story, on the other hand, was nearly perfect: It was an ongoing threat, it had a villain (those bumblers at the EPA!), and plenty of already-traumatized victims. Most importantly, there was—and still is—enough scientific uncertainty about the health effects of many of the compounds measured in the air of Lower Manhattan that reporters could, and did, say just about anything they wanted about the gravity of the threat.
Health Risks in Context
From a distance, it looked like a good story. Way up close, I had misgivings. There’s always uncertainty in environmental health stories. To me, that’s always been one of the great pleasures of the environment beat: There’s still so much left to argue about. But with the September 11 story, I found that I didn’t have the stomach for the usual give-and-take between environmentalist embellishers and industry apologists over whether the people of Lower Manhattan faced a hypothesized added cancer risk of one in 10,000 or one in 10 million. It all seemed like a makebelieve game in comparison to the stark reality of what those dust-covered people had seen and done on September 11.
Why the misgivings? The pollution was real, after all. The pulverization of more than a million tons of concrete, steel and glass—not to mention air conditioners, computers, copying machines, and much more—had released a very unusual brew of airborne compounds, many of which were known to be hazardous in sufficient concentrations. The dust had seemed to settle on every possible surface, indoors and out. And clinicians were noticing a chronic respiratory condition in hundreds of people, so many that they gave it a name: World Trade Center Cough.
But environmental health issues are meaningful only when risks are put into context. Many reporters detest the word “context” because it’s often misused by sources who try to explain away an accurate but embarrassing quote by saying it was reported “out of context.” In environmental health stories, however, context is everything. The presence of a chemical in dust on a table, or drifting in mid-air, or even deep inside the human lung, means something only if it wasn’t there before and only if there’s some evidence that it has a significant effect.
By that standard the evidence was weak, and is still weak, that the contaminants generated by the September 11 disaster pose a meaningful longterm health threat to anyone, with the possible exception of those rescue workers who spent many days on the debris pile without protective gear. There is virtually nothing in the peerreviewed scientific literature to suggest that the pollutant concentrations tens of thousands of office workers and downtown residents were breathing in the days and weeks after the attack were as hazardous as, for example, the smog inversions that settle over major cities on hot summer days.
But that’s not the end of this story, because absence of reliable evidence is not the same as absence of risk. The post-September 11 air plume was so unusual—more glassy than sooty, for example, and alkaline instead of acidic—that the usual ways of assessing risk weren’t especially helpful. For example, the air in most of downtown Manhattan met Clean Air Act standards almost every day in the months after the attack, but the Clean Air Act was written to deal with smog, soot and acid rain, not glass fibers. The persistent coughs reported by many people who worked there were undeniably real, even if there was no reliable way to verify the cause of specific cases. And the lack of relevant studies in the scientific literature surely had something to do with the fact that no one had ever destroyed two skyscrapers before in the midst of a crowded U.S. city.
So for journalists who are serious about reporting risk in context, the airquality issue was difficult, even maddening. I found it especially difficult for personal reasons. Having seen and felt the intense trauma of September 11 from an up-close vantage, I agonized over whether air hazard stories based on weak evidence were, in some small way, adding to the sense of powerlessness and fear that seemed to pervade the city. What was my responsibility? To report only what I knew to be significant and thus be certain I was not recklessly adding to the trauma? Or to report on highly uncertain risks that I knew many people were very worried about, because those risks might someday be shown to be meaningful?
In the end, I tried to pick my way down a middle path, emphasizing in my reports the sketchiness of the evidence. But soon, frustrated and unsure about what to write, I drifted away from the air-quality story and back to another project—about epidemiology and cancer clusters—that I felt much more comfortable with reporting. By then, the Manhattan air story had slipped the bonds of science and become a full-blown political controversy, with health officials making decisions that had little to do with the evidence at hand and everything to do with easing public anxiety. I watched from a safe distance.
Dan Fagin has been Newsday’s environmental reporter since 1991. He also teaches environmental journalism at New York University and is the president of the Society of Environmental Journalists.