Published January 11, 2002
Move over Gulf War Syndrome. World Trade Center Syndrome is on its way. Ground Zero's smoldering debris is filling the air of lower Manhattan with a supposedly "toxic brew" — one ripe for exploitation by the media, anti-chemical activists, hypochondriacs and, likely coming soon, personal injury lawyers.
There's no doubt that Ground Zero has released and continues to release all sorts of dust and chemical fumes into the air. Some people — most likely firefighters and other WTC site workers — may be expected to experience some minor and transient health effects from the site.
That is a far cry, though, from the picture painted by The Washington Post this week in its front-page article, "In N.Y., Taking a Breath of Fear; Illness Bring New Doubts About Toxic Exposure Near Ground Zero."
In classic junk science fashion, the Post article featured a heartstrings-tugging — but factually questionable — anecdote as representing reality.
"George Tabb and his wife tried to stick it out in their apartment just north of the World Trade Center, tried to ignore his twice nightly asthma attacks and her pounding headaches." The Tabbs eventually moved in with his stepfather, but Tabb gets a metallic taste in his mouth and wheezes when he returns home to pick up his mail, according to the Post.
"No one knows what was burning down there. I am concerned that in five years or 10 years, I'm going to be part of a cancer cluster," said Tabb. "We're going to have kids and I don't know what's going to happen," he added.
Feeding into Tabb's worries are the activists at the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project who supposedly measured levels of asbestos in an air vent in his apartment building hallway to be 555 times the "suggested level of asbestos." Other samples from a bathroom vent supposedly showed "dangerous levels of fiberglass."
The city disputes the project's measurements. But even assuming that the measurements are valid — and it's a big assumption — so what?
Asbestos and fiberglass are not known to cause asthma.
Fiberglass is only linked with cancer when fibers are injected into the lungs of laboratory rats. Asbestos is known to cause cancer and asbestos-related disease among asbestos workers, particularly smokers, heavily exposed to certain types of asbestos over long periods of time. This is not occurring in lower Manhattan.
The Environmental Protection Agency has measured some asbestos emanating from the Ground Zero rubble. But the asbestos measured has not been at worrisome levels and the fibers identified are the least dangerous type of asbestos.
Further, the mere fact that the asbestos measurement exceeds a regulatory level does not mean that a health hazard exists. Permitted levels of exposure to potentially dangerous materials are typically set way below levels at which health effects might occur.
Consider, for example, dioxin, another substance released into the air at Ground Zero and reputedly the most toxic manmade substance.
A single serving of Ben & Jerry's ice cream was measured to contain about 2,000 times the level of the dioxin that the EPA considers to be "safe."
But note that there's no health scare — no such thing as "Chunky Monkey Syndrome" — among consumers of Ben & Jerry's ice cream.
The Post article highlights others ready, willing and able to fuel World Trade Center Syndrome.
There are the asbestos hysterics from Mount Sinai's I.J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine, like Dr. Stephen Levin, who is alarmed over cases of "new onset reactive airway disease" — whatever that is. The center's namesake, ironically, is well-known for greatly exaggerating the risks of asbestos.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is working on its own environmental assessment of the World Trade Center area. But how much scientific credibility is that report likely to have? NRDC, as you might remember, is the group that in 1989 brought us the now-discredited scare over the apple pesticide Alar.
The Uniformed Firefighters Association estimates that about one-third of its 9,000 members suffer from "World Trade Center cough." One must wonder, though, how many of these men are simply suffering from the flu-related symptoms — it is flu season after all.
What's going on with the Tabbs and others, if not World Trade Center Syndrome? My bet is a combination of anxiety salted with hypochondria. Stress is a well-known asthma and headache trigger.
In the end, it won't really matter whether World Trade Center Syndrome is real or not. As in the case of Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome, politicians will soon figure out they'll get more mileage by compensating — rather than disputing — the alleged victims with taxpayer dollars.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).
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