When Canfield returned to his apartment near Clark and Henry Streets in Brooklyn Heights, loose papers and other debris were blowing across the area. His home was in the path of the cloud but supposedly far from the designated danger areas.
“There was dust on our air-conditioning units and on the vents,” Canfield recalls. “When we turned it on, the dust would blast into the room. We had wet bandannas and T-shirts, and we would put them on our faces when we went to sleep.”
Canfield couldn’t decide which was worse—to suffer the heat, to have an air-conditioning unit blowing dust into the room, or to open the windows and endure the noxious odors that were creeping their way into Brooklyn. More often than not, they chose to run the air. As Canfield explains, he simply thought the dust was just dust—skin cells, fibers, whatever.
In the following week, Canfield noticed that his dorm room rapidly collected an inordinate amount of the gray stuff, which prompted him and his roommate to clean the place three separate times that week. Neither of them had heard of, nor followed, any precautions. School had already resumed, and nobody there seemed to be talking about toxins or asbestos, so why worry, he thought.
About six months later, Canfield developed a catch in his throat.
“It was like if you swallowed a piece of rice and your instinct is to hack,” he said. “A dry, hard hack. I might cough three or four times a day, or a week.”
Every so often, the hacking would yield a small clump of tissue—different from phlegm or anything else Canfield had ever seen.
“It was sometimes brown and pinkish-bloody,” says Canfield, who has never smoked. “It didn’t hurt, so I figured it would go away.”
Canfield says that he no longer coughs as frequently as he used to, but he has developed a breathing sensitivity. Ordinary smoke from indoor cooking or an outdoor barbecue seems to bother him the most.
“Some people were buried in the dust,” explains Noah Greenspan, a cardiopulmonary specialist at the Pulmonary Wellness and Rehabilitation Center in midtown Manhattan. “There were a lot of toxins in the air, a lot of things that are very hard to clean out of the lungs, things like fiberglass and asbestos. If you inhale those things in large quantities, it’s very difficult for the body to recover from that completely.”
Greenspan has conducted a number of breathing tests on New Yorkers and expressed concern that many people don’t know that pulmonary rehabilitation is a helpful treatment option. He explained that some victims won’t even show any signs of disease for years.
“Smokers can smoke for 25 years before they become symptomatic,” he says. “I think we are going to see a similar trend for people who were exposed to 9/11.”
No agency has tracked the number of former residents like Canfield who have since left New York and fanned out across the globe, nor is there an agency outside of state lines devoted to meeting their health-care needs. At best, former residents are advised to download a treatment guideline from the NYCDOH Web site and pass it on to their doctors. Canfield, who has no health insurance, tells me that he doesn’t plan on seeing a specialist anytime soon.
“I just treat myself if I have to—just eat some soup and my veggies, you know?” he says. “I don’t have money to go to a doctor.”
Even those who conducted air sampling in 2001 have suffered. While the EPA was conducting its own measurements, outdoor air had to be tested for radioactive materials, too, and that required the help of an elite group of government scientists from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
Before 9/11, Steve Centore ran four miles a day, led an active family life as the father of three boys and a daughter, and held a security clearance earned from more than 25 years in government service. As a physicist with NNSA, he was among the first sent onto the scene following 9/11. The New York City Department of Health asked Centore to conduct air sampling at Ground Zero, but when he showed up at their makeshift command center on Chambers Street, the NYCDOH simply handed him a hard hat and a painter’s mask and told him to get to work.
“We weren’t worried about contamination, and we were told we didn’t need respirators,” Centore says. Even though he was a scientist, he still had to rely on the EPA’s findings for his own safety.
Centore spent the next four months working among the steaming ruins, looking for radioactive material in both the pile and the debris being carted off to various sites. The radioactive air samplings came back negative—he claims everything had been burned up and swept into the air.
Centore didn’t think much about the cough he had developed until several months later, when it got so persistent that he ruptured a blood vessel in his upper torso.
“It turned half my chest black and blue,” he says.
The bruise initiated a succession of doctor’s visits, but with little relief. By 2005 Centore was a different man—not just physically but mentally. He could no longer exercise, and he seemed detached much of the time. His list of medications steadily increased. For the first time in his life, he began drinking heavily. His wife began to take notice of strange behavior.
“She would find me in the middle of the night standing in the driveway, wearing my pajamas and shaking,” Centore says. A psychiatrist gave him a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and put him on psychotropic medications for his panic attacks. He took a leave of absence from work, knowing that he would probably never return.
By the spring of 2006, however, a more serious set of symptoms emerged. Centore’s organs began deteriorating. First his gallbladder failed him, then his spleen and liver began to malfunction. He would require a liver transplant eventually.
“I started bleeding everywhere—out of my ears, mouth, penis, and anus, and none of the doctors could figure out why,” Centore says. “I was in the hospital for four weeks, and I can’t tell you how many colonoscopies I had in that time.”