9/11—the gravest attack on American soil—was also an unprecedented environmental disaster and the fulcrum of a deadly public health crisis that continues today.
Days after the 9/11 terrorist attack and collapse of the World Trade towers, EPA head Christine Todd Whitman declared that the air in New York City was safe—in spite of overwhelming sensory and scientific evidence to the contrary. Together, Whitman, the Bush administration, Mayor Giuliani, New York City Health Department, and other city and federal agencies forged a consensus of denial about the dangerous level of air contamination in New York City and the severe public health hazards it posed. For nine months first responders from New York City, and men and women who had come from all over the country to assist in the rescue and recovery operation worked on “the pile”at Ground Zero — 16 acres heaped with mangled steel, tons of pulverized building materials mixed with asbestos and millions of crushed fluorescent bulbs filled with mercury. Some operated forklifts and bulldozers, but most dug and sifted through the toxic debris searching for bones and wedding rings to identify the victims. Putting their faith in the words of elected officials at a time of heightened emotions and patriotism, many worked without proper respiratory protection. Residents, workers, and students in lower Manhattan were advised by public officials managing the recovery that it was safe to return home, to work, and to school far earlier than it was healthy to do so. The re-opening of the stock market less than a week after the largest and most toxic environmental disaster in our nation’s history sent a message to Americans and around the globe that not only was the world’s financial center—just a stone’s throw from Ground Zero—back to business, there was no reason for alarm.
9/11’s Unsettled Dust examines the widespread dereliction of duty on the part of the EPA, and the Bush and Giuliani administrations for providing false assurances rather than protecting the public from environmental harms and their deadly health impacts. Several whistleblowers— including an environmental attorney, a journalist, and an EPA analyst— reveal both the horrifically unprecedented extent of the toxins, and the political and economic motivations that kept those working at Ground Zero and the public in the dark about them. Immediately, first responders working at Ground Zero as well as residents and workers in the surrounding area developed the “9/11 cough.” For many, the cough turned into debilitating respiratory illnesses; then, a few years later, the cancers began to appear.
9/11’s Unsettled Dust tells the high stakes story of the men and women, who while ill from 9/11-related illnesses fought an epic battle for 9/11 health care. John Feal, a former construction worker who lost a foot at Ground Zero, coalesced and led a grassroots group of sick 9/11 responders, residents, and workers. Over a period of several years they made more than 80 trips to Washington D.C. to call on members of Congress to pass the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. After years of knocking on congressional doors, finally in 2010 Feal’s juggernaut of political and moral pressure succeeded. A compromise with Republicans who were opposed to the legislation was struck, and a five-year bill was passed. The year before the health bill was about to sunset, Feal mounted another campaign to once again change the minds of recalcitrant Republicans and in 2015 won support for a long-term renewal of the bill.
9/11’s Unsettled Dust exposes the painful contradictions between the personal sacrifices made by the more than 50,000 men and women who toiled at Ground Zero to serve the common good and honor those who died the day the twin towers crumbled to toxic dust, and the politicians and elected officials who for years praised 9/11 heroes for their patriotism yet denied both the personal cost these men and women paid for their heroism and their need for help.
While this documentary traces a tragic story, it is also inspirational in what it reveals about moral courage, the galvanizing impact of whistleblowers, and the power of grassroots advocacy efforts to achieve some measure of public accountability and redress for environmental and health harms—in this case through the passage of a critical piece of legislation that continues to alleviate some of the suffering of tens of thousands of individuals whose health was impaired by 9/11 toxins.
9/11’s Unsettled Dust is relevant to the following academic disciplines and subject areas:
American Studies, Civics, Disaster Studies, Emergency Medical Service Studies, Environmental Studies, Environmental Health, Environmental Justice, Environmental Toxicology, Environmental Advocacy, Environmental Law, First Responders, General Social Science, Government, Health Advocacy Studies, Healthcare Policy, Law, Medical School Studies, New York Studies, New York City Policing, New York City Studies, Political Science, Public Health, Public Policy, Safety, Sociology, Social Justice Studies, Urban Studies, Whistleblowing.