9/11's Toxic Dust and Health

The emotional ceremonies marking the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 offered a poignant portrayal of the countless ways this tragedy continues to impact lives. The following article addresses the health issues many children are facing who inhaled toxic dust from the aftermath of the attacks on New York City. One of the mothers featured in this story relied solely on her intuition to connect her children's health to the plume.

Mariama James was 8 1/2 months pregnant at the time. "My children were completely covered in dust, they couldn't escape it," she says of her son and daughter, then 9 and 6 years old. "I swept, I vacuumed, but you couldn't get rid of it, it was everywhere. It's like if you took pounds and pounds of chalk and chopped it up and rolled around in it for four days. ... You know that feeling when you hit two erasers together and breathe it in? This was like sticking the entire eraser down your throat."

Two years after the attacks her eldest daughter Armani, now 15, started experiencing chronic sinus infections, ear infections, throat infections, and a persistent cough. Soon after that all three of her children, including her newborn daughter, had a host of health conditions including asthma, chronic bronchitis, and acid reflux. They were seeing a pediatric pulmonologist once a month without fail and were missing school more than any child probably should. At one point, each child was on at least seven different medications.

"I initially came to the conclusion that my kids were sick from 9/11 on my own, but my pediatrician just didn't buy it at all," says James, adding that both of her older children were more or less healthy prior to the attacks. "I still love my pediatrician, but I only go to him for regular annual visits."

All of James' children are now being treated in the pediatric program at the World Trade Center Environmental Health Center, which operates out of Bellevue Hospital in New York City. A study based on the Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene's WTC Health Registry cites that 25,000 children were either living or attending school in Lower Manhattan the day of the attacks, and projects that tens of thousands more "were in the path of the plume of building debris and smoke, close enough to inhale particulates and toxic substances."

Dr. Elizabeth Fiorino, a pediatric pulmonologist who joined the WTCEHC's pediatric program in 2009, says that the most common ailments she encounters in patients are upper and lower respiratory conditions, mostly asthma and allergic rhinitis. "We also see acid reflux disease and a variety of behavioral, learning and mental health issues," she says.

Kimberly Flynn, executive and co-founder of 9/11 Environmental Action, an activist organization that fought for proper cleanup of affected communities following the attacks, says that denial comes easily when it comes to health issues and 9/11. According to Flynn, "People don't want to admit they are sick, or admit that their children are sick. They have a hard time tolerating the idea that 9/11 is still with them."

When terrorists fly planes into buildings, we see the cause and effect. People die instantly or are caught in the collapse. It's more difficult to see the slow, gradual sickness that comes in the aftermath. Perhaps the tragic events that now mark a decade will help us awaken to the connection between environmental toxicity and health.