The poisonous legacy of 9/11

New Yorkers were told their air was safe to breathe after 9/11. It wasn't. As the city's first toxic

I took the train to New York a few days ago - now definitely the only way to go, given the hellishness of travelling by plane in the US - and found Manhattan pulsating with life, as usual. My taxi driver careened through rush-hour traffic at the customary high speed and even managed to hit a man, who, miraculously, was not hurt. Restaurant workers were noisily picketing their workplaces, protesting at management for keeping large portions of the tips meant for them. The ever-widening gap between rich and poor was more evident than ever - 18,000 children aged five or under spend their nights in New York's homeless shelters, while the average yearly salary of a top hedge-fund manager, typically based in this city, has just been calculated at $363m.

Two fascinating facts emerged during my visit. The first was that the insurance companies have settled the last of the claims arising from the 11 September 2001 New York atrocities, clearing the way for thousands of workers to swarm into the 16-acre pit left by the World Trade Center to begin a $9bn rebuilding project.

The second could ultimately make the $4.55bn paid out by the likes of Swiss Re, Allianz Global Risks and Zurich American seem paltry. With a stroke of his pen, New York's chief medical examiner, Dr Charles Hirsch, certified that the death from sarcoidosis (a relatively rare lung condition) of 42-year-old Felicia Dunn-Jones in 2002 was "with certainty beyond a reasonable doubt" connected with dust she had breathed in as she ran from her office a block away from the twin towers on 11 September. Before my visit to New York, the death toll from the twin towers attacks stood at 2,749; when I left, it was 2,750, with the death of Dunn-Jones officially labelled a "homicide".

This was the first such formal classification of what the Bush administration might call "collateral damage" from the 11 September attacks. A New Jersey pathologist ruled that the death last year from pulmonary fibrosis of 34-year-old James Zadroga, a New York City police detective who had spent hundreds of hours combing through the carnage was, "with a reasonable degree of medical certainty . . . directly related to the 9/11 incident", but this finding has not been accepted by the city authorities.

So are we witnessing the first confirmed details emerging of the most serious of all of the 9/11 cover-ups by the Bush administration, which will make the 2,973 overall deaths seem a vast underestimate? Witnesses to 9/11 (who include my friend Conor O'Clery, the legendary Irish foreign correspondent now retired from the Irish Times, who tells me that he breathed in noxious substances for months afterwards) say that a Chernobyl-type cloud of dust and debris blew and settled not just over Manhattan, but as far afield as Brooklyn and even New Jersey, too.

Indeed, 700,000 people have added their names to a registry of those who believe they were exposed to toxic substances; the actual figure could be smaller, or it could run into millions - 10,000 of them so far have filed court claims. A Brooklyn study released last month found that cases of asthma there alone had increased 2.4 times since 11 September 2001. In the year following the attacks, firefighters developed sarcoidosis at five times the rate they had done so before; 26 firefighters who were working at Ground Zero within 72 hours of the attack sub sequently developed the disease, according to the findings of a study published last month in the medical journal Chest Physician.

The American College of Preventive Medicine, meanwhile, has expressed fears that deadly, malignant mesothelioma could develop in those exposed. Scores of rescue workers - 40 per cent of whom have no medical insurance - have already developed rare blood-cell cancers and thousands of firefighters have been treated for serious respiratory problems.

"The 9/11 health crisis is an emergency on a national scale, and it requires a federal response," says Carolyn Maloney, Democratic congresswoman from New York, who adds that citizens from all 50 states in the Union as well as foreigners are affected.

The scandal is that the Bush administration knew almost immediately of the dangers of the toxic New York air, but lied. The public could breathe free, secure in the knowledge that "it is not being exposed to excessive levels of asbestos or other harmful substances", according to Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor appointed by Bush to lead the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in January 2001. Speaking seven days after the attacks, she said: "I am glad to reassure the people of New York . . . that their air is safe to breathe." The then mayor, Rudy Giuliani, chimed in to say that air quality was "safe and acceptable". Both Whitman and Giuliani, subsequent investigations suggest, were under pressure from the White House to provide these reassurances in order to keep Wall Street operating.

In the words of O'Clery, "we were systematically misled". Dr Cate Jenkins, a senior EPA scientist who has kept her job despite accusing Whitman and others of lying, says the EPA knew all along that the air hundreds of thousands were breathing was potentially as "caustic and corrosive as Drano", the best-known American drain declogger.

Dr Marjorie Clarke - an environmental scientist at the City University of New York - like-wise contradicted the Bush administration when she warned a Senate committee that, far from it being the case that the air in New York was safe to breathe, the attacks had "produced uncontrolled emissions equivalent to dozens of asbestos factories, incinerators and crematoria, as well as a volcano". These "created an unpre cedented quantity and combination of dozens of toxic and carcinogenic substances" and were "dispersed over a large area for several months", including parts of New Jersey. "US Geological Survey aerial maps in late September 2001," she found, "show asbestos contamination in Manhattan miles from the WTC."

The first 34 floors of the twin towers contained asbestos sprayed on to beams, floors and ceilings as fire retardants. More than 2,500 other contaminants were released into the air on 9/11, including fibreglass, mercury, cadmium, lead, dioxin, crystalline silicon and benzene - substances which, when breathed in, can cause not just cancer, but cardiac, kidney, liver and neurological diseases, besides pulmonary disorders such as asthma. The smaller the particles, the more dangerous they become; Clarke says they can be so microscopic that the natural coughing reflex fails to expel them, leaving them to accumulate on the lungs "for decades".

I have always expressed admiration for Giuliani's visible leadership on the streets of New York on 11 September (in contrast with that of Bush, who chose to stay aloft in Air Force One rather than return to DC to take command). But Giuliani's subsequent decisions, which restored his then-ailing mayoralty to the extent that he is now a front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, are more questionable. He adopted the galvanising and macho "we'll show 'em" attitude so much in vogue at the time, which resulted in the debris being cleared in nine months, rather than the 30 predicted - but, in doing so, cut corners in a way that may well have disastrous long-term consequences.

By late October that year, for example - long after hope for survivors had been lost and there was no need for frantic scrambling - his administration failed to enforce its ruling that all workers on the site wear face-mask respirators. Only 29 per cent were doing so.

Then Giuliani himself set a terrible example by visiting Ground Zero and not wearing one, in front of countless workers. The clear-up was so rushed that, still today, body parts are being found on rooftops and elsewhere.

The reclassification of the cause of Felicia Dunn-Jones's death is, therefore, of more than momentous symbolic significance. Politically, the Democratic wolves are already moving in for the kill: least surprisingly, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York is planning to haul Giuliani before a Senate committee to be questioned about his post-11 September decisions. Representative Jerry Nadler (also of New York) and 22 other congressmen and women are asking the Bush administration to divert $282m to be spent on immediate health care for those rescue workers most badly affected. Nadler "absolutely" plans to bring Giuliani before a House committee, too. "Who made decisions, if any, that resulted unnecessarily in a lot of people getting sick?" he asks rhetorically.

Giuliani's successor as mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, is another politician involved in the 9/11 aftermath who is considering a presidential bid. He has been trying to play down the Dunn-Jones ruling. "Think of it as though somebody had gotten - had a beam fall on them and it just took a little while for them to succumb to their injury," he stammered out in a lamentable attempt to explain, instead merely cornering his administration into an even more legally dangerous situation.

How many more?

Now that the insurance wrangles are over (the insurers had insisted that the 11 September attacks comprised one "incident", while the property developer, 75-year-old Larry Silverstein, who took out a $3.21bn, 99-year lease on the WTC site just seven weeks before the attacks, argued that they were two separate events), work will commence with furious haste at Ground Zero. Buildings doomed years ago, such as the Deutsche Bank, have yet to be de molished, but hundreds of workers have been labouring away at a new $2bn railway station and a brand-new 52-storey building, 7 World Trade Center, has been completed.

This means that armies of workers and engineers and architects will once again be converging on the possibly still-contaminated site, this time labouring to put up the flagship Freedom Tower and the other new buildings that will fill the void. Rock anchors (165 of them) have already been grouted 80 feet deep into 120 tonnes of bedrock.

Poor Dunn-Jones, a dynamic civil rights law yer who worked for the US education department, did not live to see these developments, because she literally suddenly stopped breathing in February 2002 after developing a cough. But, in a tacit acknowledgement of what had killed her, the US department of justice's victim compensation fund awarded her family $2.6m in damages. A spokeswoman for the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation says that Dunn-Jones will be officially listed as a victim on the 9/11 memorial when it opens in 2009.

But how many more names will there be by then? And in the following decade, or two, or three? Conor O'Clery, who watched from his apartment two blocks away as people plunged to their deaths from the twin towers, says he still finds it hard sometimes to get the taste of that noxious white and grey-brown dust out of his mouth and nostrils, even though he now lives in the Irish countryside.

Most galling of all for the families of victims, and the survivors, is that the Bush administration - as well as one of the two leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination next year - did not tell the truth about their plight, when it was known all along that the air in New York was not fit to breathe.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.