Remembering 9/11’s Effects on a Forgotten Community

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By Kaley Beins

At 8:45am on September 11, 2001, the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center, and so many lives fundamentally changed. Now, 14 years later, though we continue to remember the lives lost that day, the tragedy lives on in many ways.

In the aftermath of the attacks, many New Yorkers criticized former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman for claiming, “Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York … that their air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink.” In 2004 the Mount Sinai Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine reported that first responders were likely to have respiratory problems as a result of their exposure to the caustic dust, eventually concluding in a 2009 study that first responders were twice as likely to have asthma as the general public. Although Mount Sinai posted a 9/11 health advisory in 2001 and advised New York City health officials to follow suit, NYC did not distribute health information until 2006, 5 years after the attacks. Researchers continue to study health problems related to 9/11, and have found possible links to cancer, kidney problems, and heart disease. While there are now health programs such as the WTC Environmental Health Center to help with health problems related to 9/11, the long-term health effects first responders face as a result of their heroism are stark.

There is another group potentially affected by the air pollution and debris from September 11th: the inhabitants of Chinatown. One of the residential areas nearest Ground Zero, Chinatown, Manhattan has the largest Chinese population in the Western Hemisphere. The neighborhood demographics also include immigrants from Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Burma, the Philippines, and West Africa. Its median household income is less than $36,000, about 30% lower than the median household income for New York City as a whole, and only 55% of residents 18 years or older have a high school diploma. The 2005 American Community Survey found that almost 90% of Chinatown residents speak a language other than English at home. The combination of economic pressure and a language barrier puts Chinatown in a precarious position in terms of public health.

According to a 2007 study from NYU School of Medicine’s Center for the Study of Asian American Health about a third of Chinese participants needed a translator during medical appointments. Although organizations such as the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center are addressing the lack of resources for Asia Americans in New York, the health disparity in the Chinatown community may leave them even more susceptible to 9/11-related health problems.

Ground One: Voices from Post-9/11 Chinatown has interviewed people from Chinatown, including healthcare professionals, about the effects of the attacks on their communities. Dr. Blanche Leung, a physician affiliated with NYU’s Tisch Hospital, has noticed an increase in complaints about respiratory problems in her Chinatown patients that could potentially be related to the attacks. Following the events of September 11th, she wrote prescriptions for air purifiers. Dr. Sun Hoo Foo, a neurologist at Downtown Hospital, said that the economic problems Chinatown faced after 9/11 meant many of his patients lost their jobs and therefore their medical insurance. As the Ground One project says on their website, “9/11 was a national tragedy that exposed local fault lines.” While it is crucial to support the first responders in their health struggles, who is supporting Chinatown?

Part of environmental justice is giving equal attention and consideration to every affected community. Unfortunately, more limited access to healthcare may prevent residents of Chinatown from receiving the care they need. As we remember the lives of those lost on that horrific day 14 years ago, let us not forget those who continue to face its lingering effects, particularly when they still lack support.

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