Trading on Tragedy

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(274)

Review of 'Fallout', Juan Gonzalez, Verso £10.95

When the World Trade Centre collapsed, the pulverised remains formed a torrential dust cloud that rapidly dispersed into the atmosphere over Manhattan. But this was no ordinary dust. It contained many highly toxic substances. This book, by New York journalist Juan Gonzalez, is a shocking account of the failure of the authorities to safeguard the health of the residents and workers of Manhattan and the rescue workers who toiled in the disaster zone. Gonzalez also shows that there was a conscious attempt by the authorities to suppress the truth once the full scale of the environmental catastrophe began to emerge.

The equivalent of a small city went up in flames on 11 September 2001. The fire that destroyed the Twin Towers spread to neighbouring buildings, causing their collapse, and igniting a huge underground oil reserve that lay below the World Trade Centre complex, put there, ironically, to be used in the event of an emergency. The ignition of this reserve of over 100,000 gallons of oil helped fuel fires that lasted for several months.

The fumes and smoke from fires in modern office buildings are highly toxic. This is due to widespread use of heavy metals and plastics. Vast amounts of these burned on 11 September, releasing such poisonous by-products as dioxins, which cause cancer. Anything from 200,000 to 400,000 pounds of lead were also present in the personal computers that were destroyed in the disaster. There was also as much as 1,000 tons of asbestos in the Twin Towers.

Faced with such a lethal cocktail, one would have expected the authorities to evacuate downtown New York and not allow anyone back until a full decontamination had been carried out. In fact, on 17 September, less than one week after the disaster, with half a dozen uncontrolled fires still burning in the debris, tens of thousands of office workers returned to their jobs after receiving the go-ahead from safety officials. On 18 September Christie Todd Whitman, head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, gave her official statement of approval. 'I am glad to reassure the people of New York...that their air is safe to breathe,' she announced.

In fact, the agency's own tests were showing dangerously high levels of asbestos, lead, mercury, dioxins, benzene and other noxious substances. But they held back these findings. By the third week after the disaster, however, thousands of people who had returned to work, to school, or to their residences near the disaster zone had started to complain about serious respiratory problems. It was then that a few journalists began to challenge the official story. They met a barrage of outrage from the city's political and business elite, who sought immediately to discredit the reports, and brought pressure to bear on the journalists concerned. Gonzalez was one of the few who managed to carry on publishing articles about the health risks.

A particularly negative role was played by New York mayor Rudi Giuliani. By classifying the clean-up operation as an emergency rescue effort, Giuliani allowed the city to ignore proper health and safety procedures. This meant that thousands of workers who toiled away for months in the disaster zone did not have proper protection. Gonzalez provides some harrowing stories of individuals whose lives have been ruined by work for which they were originally lauded as heroes.

Today thousands of apartments, schools and offices across Manhattan near the disaster zone have still not been decontaminated. Private surveys show high levels of toxic substances remain. Growing numbers of people are demanding an inquiry into what has really been going on and for a proper decontamination programme. But much of the damage to health has undoubtedly already occurred. So next time you hear that a war is being fought in the names of those who perished on 11 September, remember that the US establishment is quite capable of treating its own citizens with the same contempt that it shows to those elsewhere in the world.