The wildfire smoke that recently darkened the skies above New York City often looked frighteningly similar to the dust cloud from Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
Though the smoke and the dust cloud contained very different contaminants, each presented serious threats to human health.
And both the smoke and the dust cloud demonstrate that we must focus on protecting our air quality and limiting the risks of toxic exposure, particularly for people at risk of respiratory problems and other illnesses.
The wildfire smoke, for example, increased New York City’s air quality index (AQI) to 413 – the worst on record – nearly doubling asthma-related visits to local emergency rooms, according to the New York City Health Department. Normally, the city has an AQI below 50.
When air pollution of any kind threatens the public heath, all levels of government must advance a coordinated response to protect the populations at risk.
That response should include the free distribution of protective equipment such as high-quality face masks, stay-at-home advisories (and in extreme situations, mandates).
As global warming worsens, I hope New York City will pre-emptively distribute masks at locations across the five boroughs, including major business districts, residential neighborhoods, and public institutions such as libraries.
Yet too often the government has ignored hazardous air quality conditions.
Consider how the situation was mishandled after 9/11:
Despite officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claiming that the air in Lower Manhattan was safe to breathe, both first responders and people working, living, and studying in the area below Canal Street were exposed to pulverized glass and concrete, asbestos, chromium, benzene, and many other known carcinogens.
Regardless of the serious health risks, the government wanted to re-open Wall Street and demonstrate that the business as usual would continue.
Within a few days, office workers were back at their desks. A few weeks later, students and teachers returned to their classrooms.
Responders to the World Trade Center site were provided with minimal protective equipment, if any, and wore their regular uniforms.
We are still living with the tragic consequences of the decision to allow half a million people to remain near Ground Zero, which burned for 99 days
Nearly 85,000 claims have been submitted to the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund by responders and survivors diagnosed with 69 types of cancer and many respiratory illnesses, as well as families that have lost a parent or a spouse.
Sadly, even these figures fail to reflect the full harm of illnesses resulting from Ground Zero exposure. Though 85% of 9/11 responders are enrolled in the WTC Health Program, fewer than 10% of survivors (people working, living, or studying in the exposure zone) have enrolled.
The federal government and Lower Manhattan businesses and other institutions must expand their efforts to inform 9/11 responders and survivors who have been diagnosed with cancer or respiratory illness of their right to access free health care and compensation – and the many people who are now healthy but remain at risk.
This tragedy was not inevitable.
The government could have provided responders with breathing equipment to prevent toxic exposure, as well as Hazmat suits to protect their skin.
People living below Canal Street could have been temporarily relocated, and local businesses and schools operated remotely until the air was safe.
The cost of these precautions, though substantial, cannot compare to the needless loss of life and the enormous suffering of 9/11 victims and their families – suffering that will continue for decades in the future as more 9/11 community members are diagnosed with cancer.
As an advocate for more than 35,000 9/11 responders, survivors, and family members, I know from personal experience the devastation that has resulted from the failure to take adequate precautions.
We cannot afford to ignore the threat of toxins in the air we breathe. Our health depends on it.