In Manhattan, Children Still Battle 9/11-Related Illnesses

The day the Twin Towers crumbled, more than 25,000 kids inhaled toxic substances. Ten years later, many of them are suffering from health problems that still haven't gone away.


Dust from the World Trade Center attacks lies thick on a pair of children's shoes on September 13, 2001 (Mario Tama/Getty)

The evening of September 11, 2001, after the towers fell and a torrent of toxic dust inundated the arteries of downtown New York City, Mariama James returned to her Lower Manhattan home, to a white apartment. "Every inch was covered in dust," she says of her Southbridge towers unit, located just blocks from where the World Trade Center stood that morning. "It was a beautiful day and my windows were wide open," she recalls.

James was 8 1/2 months pregnant at the time. "My children were completely covered in dust, they couldn't escape it," she says of her son and daughter, then 9 and 6 years old. "I swept, I vacuumed, but you couldn't get rid of it, it was everywhere. It's like if you took pounds and pounds of chalk and chopped it up and rolled around in it for four days. ... You know that feeling when you hit two erasers together and breathe it in? This was like sticking the entire eraser down your throat."

9-11 Ten Years LaterTwo years after the attacks her eldest daughter Armani, now 15, started experiencing chronic sinuses infections, ear infections, throat infections, and a persistent cough. Soon after that all three of her children, including her newborn daughter, had a host of health conditions including asthma, chronic bronchitis, and acid reflux. They were seeing a pediatric pulmonologist once a month without fail and were missing school more than any child probably should. At one point, each child was on at least seven different medications.

"I initially came to the conclusion that my kids were sick from 9/11 on my own, but my pediatrician just didn't buy it at all," says James, adding that both of her older children were more of less healthy prior to the attacks. "I still love my pediatrician, but I only go to him for regular annual visits."

All of James' children are now being treated in the pediatric program at the World Trade Center Environmental Health Center, which operates out of Bellevue Hospital in New York City. A study based on the Dept of Health and Mental Hygeine's WTC Health Registry cites that 25,000 children were either living or attending school in Lower Manhattan the day of the attacks, and projects that tens of thousands more "were in the path of the plume of building debris and smoke, close enough to inhale particulates and toxic substances."

"People don't want to admit they are sick, or admit that their children are sick. They have a hard time tolerating the idea that 9/11 is still with them."

Dr. Elizabeth Fiorino, a pediatric pulmonologist who joined the WTCEHC's pediatric program in 2009, says that most common ailments she encounters in patients are upper and lower respiratory conditions, mostly asthma and allergic rhinitis. "We also see acid reflux disease and a variety of behavioral, learning and mental health issues," she says. Fiorino contends that the pediatric program at the Health Center is best equipped to deal with 9/11-related issues because it is "a multidisciplinary program."

During the initial four-hour visit, she says, "we do a full evaluation, with a full history including exposure history. We do pulmonary function tests that same day, which is definitely different from what would occur in a general pediatrician's office, and we also do a full mental health screening." She is quick to note, however, that the pediatric program is "more of a consultative service working with the child's own pediatrician."

Similarly, Terry Miles, the World Trade Environmental Health Center's executive director, classifies the program at large as a specialized expertise service that is not intended to act as a replacement for a child or adult's medical home: "We're not trying to take people away from their community physicians. Rather, there is a certain level of expertise that we've developed because we do what we do. We have learned to understand the cause and effect, the nuances of the difference between 9/11-related asthma and regular asthma, and the more detailed diagnostic procedures that might be called for to address these issues."

Yet for all the expertise and resources available at the Health Center, and the estimated number of children exposed to toxic dust, there is a shockingly small number of children actually utilizing those resources. Just under 80 children are enrolled in the pediatric program. Dr. Fiorino surmises that "there probably isn't as big of an impetus for parents to seek care here [at the pediatric program] as opposed to the adult exposed population, because in New York state we're lucky enough that kids pretty much have universal health care." (The program treats patients free of cost.) 

She adds that after the attacks, "pediatricians in the area stepped up. Kids got care in their medical home right after the disaster. Many of the common conditions that at least we're seeing are fairly common conditions in the pediatric population as a whole, and are conditions that a general pediatrician will definitely be comfortable treating."

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Shakthi Jothianandan is a New York City-based journalist who has written for The Nation, New York magazine's website, and Ms. Magazine online, among other outlets.

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