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Among Vivid Memories of 9/11, the Smells and Dust in the Air

New York City fireman at Ground Zero

A fireman walks through the rubble and the smoldering wreckage of ground zero in New York on Oct. 11, 2001; Gary Friedman/AFP/Getty Images

In the 10 years since 9/11, a lot of people have asked me what I remember the most about being in New York as one of the NewsHour’s team of journalists. Of course, my most vivid memories will always be the people and their tragic stories of loss. But there was something else I still can’t shake: the smell at ground zero.

It wasn’t the smell of death. I had unfortunately experienced that more than once in a long news career. And it wasn’t burning plastic. It wasn’t even the burning of other substances like rubber or melting metal. I knew what all those were like. It was something I had not experienced before and have not experienced since. And, I’m still not sure exactly how to describe it.

But what I do know now is what made that smell — and how it’s affected a number of first responders on the scene.

Scientists tell us that the dust cloud over the World Trade Center site contained a lot of nasty things. They have names like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), dioxins and asbestos. And they can all cause cancer.

There were also manmade fibers, volatile organic compounds, silica, pulverized glass shards, alkaline concrete dust, lead, mercury and other heavy metals in the dust cloud over ground zero.

By 2007, when New York state industrial hygienist David Newman testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, it was also known that the federal Environmental Protection Agency had enough data available in September 2001 to determine there were dangerous substances in the air that could potentially harm people.

Newman, a member of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, known as NYCOSH, told the committee that EPA had “credible, substantive data that indicated the presence of toxic substances in significant quantities at the World Trade Center site,” and that the agency response was “not consistent with its legal obligations to protect the health of the public against exposure to outdoor and indoor toxic environmental contaminants associated with a catastrophic disaster.”

On Sept. 18, 2001, the EPA told the public in a news release that the air in Lower Manhattan “is safe to breathe.”

As thousands of residents and business people were allowed to return, EPA issued news releases counseling people to clean their properties with “appropriate” equipment and said people should follow “recommended” and “proper” procedures. The problem with that was the agency never defined what those terms meant.

A subsequent investigation by the EPA’s inspector general found advice like that “may have increased the long term health risks for those who cleaned the WTC dust.”

You’ll get no argument from Jon Sferazo about that.

On 9/11, Sferazo was a 46-year-old ironworker and certified New York state search-and-rescue worker whose major hobby was long-distance running. He went down to ground zero to help other first responders look for people missing in the pile of rubble that once was the World Trade Center. He stayed there for weeks working with the others hoping to find someone alive.

Today at 56, Sferazo has trouble catching his breath because his lungs operate at only about one-third their normal capacity. He is disabled, still has nightmares about what he saw at the World Trade Center site and he says he will never forget that smell.

In 2006, on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 he told the Newshour he was “sucking in so much of it. It was difficult to breathe.” Sferazo added that anything he put over his face restricted the ability to take in air. Five years after the WTC tragedy, Sferazo told us he was still haunted by the fact that after weeks of searching his rescue team never found anybody.

“So, I gotta do something, you know? I got to try to help people”.

In the years since that interview, Sferazo cashed in most of his retirement savings and invested it in land in Maine where he’s trying to raise a species of chestnut trees that are resilient to the blight that took them out some years ago.

Sferazo sees his trees as new life. And for him, the trees serve as a memorial to all those thousands of first responders who worked with him at ground zero and have since suffered medical problems.

He also works with the American Greenlands Restoration project in Maine. It’s reclaiming thousands of acres of land in the state.
But the project also helps disabled first responders by providing them with free vacations and outdoor therapy.

Sferazo was heartened earlier this year when the Congress passed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which will give long-term monitoring and health care to first responders injured or harmed from exposure to toxins at the World Trade Center site.

Based upon evidence from a report released in July, the legislation did not include cancer on the list of conditions that qualify an individual for compensation.

Then came a major study published in a special edition of the British medical journal The Lancet this month, which found that male firefighters who worked at the site were 19 percent more likely to develop cancer than members of the general population.

Sferazo says he was not surprised by the findings. “I knew this already,” he said, sadly. And he’s not sure it’s going to mean that the Zadroga Act will get expanded to include people who’ve developed cancer.

Two of his firefighter buddies have died from cancer in the past couple of years. Sferazo says it’s “too late” for them. And he doesn’t see how any law will ever give him back the good health that he has lost for good.

“I feel like my life stopped on 9/11, and I’m just living out the rest by going through the motions.”

But he says he does find consolation in his charity work and knowing he followed through on what he said to the NewsHour in 2006.

“I did something.”

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