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World Trade Center attacks: secondary impacts

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And Love Canal was safe to swim in back in 1978, I joked to my husband. Love Canal was a toxic site in Niagra, New York, where residents began contracting cancer at inordinately high rates. When the locals began to connect the toxic dumping of Occidental Petroleum to their health problems, the government at all levels opposed them. By 1978, Love Canal became a national media event with articles referring to the neighborhood as "a public health time bomb." On August 7, 1978, United States President Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency at Love Canal, and those living closest to the site were relocated.

How could we have known that this was every bit as bad as Love Canal and possibly much worse. At the time, I only knew that the air was so bad I had to wear a surgical mask, even inside my home, which was located near the corner of Prince and West Broadway, in Soho, an area cordoned off as part of the crime scene in the week following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

I was 5-months pregnant and worried about the effect of the air on the health of my unborn child. I was also worried about reports of heightened asbestos levels and the effect that would have on my 5-year-old. I recalled cases where schools had been forced to shut due to the discover of asbestos in the walls, because it was thought that inhalation of asbestos could cause lung diseases and cancers.

I called my family physician. “Is the air safe to breathe, even for a pregnant woman?”I asked.

“That’s what the EPA says,” he said.

I both liked and trusted Dr. N. He was a wonderful man, an independent thinker who was a painter in his off hours. I had seen his work in an exciting group show at Exit Art, a wharehouse space run by Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo,. He was a fine artist and doctor.

His office was situated about seven blocks from what was now, strangely to those of us who lived in the area, being called “ground zero.”

“And you believe them?” I said.

“I do. They’ve conducted studies and that’s the report.”

For a moment, what my body told me to be true, seemed wrong. I wasn’t one to give inordinate power to doctors. I had started my career as an investigative journalist, after all. I had questioned authority for a living and exposed scandalous lies. One of the stories I’d written back then had been about medical professionals in Tennessee who were trying to block nurse-midwives from taking away their business.

But I really trusted Dr. N. He was smart, sensitive and he had meant a lot to me. It was he I turned to when I worried about my husband’s health.

He had listened to me with a compassionate look on his face and finally said, “You love him so much. Does that man know how lucky he is?” Then he added, “Listen, in all my years of practice, I have never seen a man change.”

It was a hard fact to swallow, but I could accept it from a Dr. N. I genuinely believed him about that, and now there was this.

“Do you believe in extraterrestrials?” I asked.

“Ha, ha,” Dr. N said.

My obstetrician, the highly respected Dr. A, concurred.

It was very hard to get into see Dr. A. Her practice was full and she would only take new patients, if they were pregnant. A slender, pretty Asian woman, Dr. A, also inspired trust, because she was knowledgeable about medicine and sharp as a tack.

Her office had been moved to an office near twenty-third Street, and Eighth Avenue, a completely different neighborhood while her office near the trade centre got cleaned up. She and her staff had fled the toxic cloud on the day of the disaster, her secretary explained to me on the phone.

“I’m having nightmares about it. I can’t sleep,” the secretary said. “We were covered by it completely. There is a thick layer of ash all over everything in the office.”

But when I got Dr. A on the phone, she told me with certainty, “The EPA says it is completely safe---even for pregnant women.”

I came in for my regular consultation a few days later. The nurse checked my weight and frowned.

“You’ve gained twenty pounds, my friend,” she said. “Too fat. You know the way to lose weight, right? Cut the carbs. Dr. A may want you to keep a food log. Write down everything you put in your mouth and we’ll look at it the next time you come in. Don’t want to balloon up, do you?”

Oh, give me a break, I thought. Don’t you realize there’s a war going on?

I readied myself to go to Whole Foods which my friends and I lovingly called Whole Paycheck afterwards and loaded up on carbs.

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