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Jewish World Review March 18, 2002 / 5 Nisan, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

War questions to which no one has answers | I've stopped asking him if he has a cold.

He's someone in New York with whom I work, and with whom I often talk several times a week. Like all of us who have people we know in New York, I was concerned on Sept. 11, relieved for him and his family when it turned out he was all right . . . and like all of us who have people we know in New York, once I knew he was alive I stopped thinking about his connection to that day quite so much.

Except that every time we talk, I hear that rasp in his voice, I hear him clear his throat -- he didn't do that before. Did he have a cold? That's the question I would ask every time. And every time his answer was the same: Don't know what it is. Can't seem to get rid of it. Started just after Sept. 11.

There's something in the air. Whatever it turns out to be -- the airborne mix that New Yorkers have been breathing for almost six months -- it's not likely, at least for now, to warrant as much news space as the war on terror itself, or the fluctuations in the official number of those dead at the site of the attacks. This will be something that creeps up on us -- and it is indicative of the uncertainty of much of life since September.

The news reports list almost exactly the same symptoms for people who live and work near that part of town. Asthma attacks. Sore throats. Deep, racking coughs. Unexplained nosebleeds. Shortness of breath and dizziness. The taste of metal in mouths.

There has been dissatisfaction directed at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which after the attacks assured the public that the New York air was safe to breathe, and the water was safe to drink. But the EPA, like everyone else, appears to be in a position that translates most accurately to: We just don't know. If the unthinkable happened Sept. 11, it has been transformed into the unknowable.

And that which is known is more than a little frightening. Among pollutants found in the area of the attack have been asbestos, benzene, lead, PCBs, mercury, dioxin and chromium. But as people try to figure out what they may have breathed that is making them sick, there is one aspect that is usually avoided, because the imagery is too grotesque:

Thousands of human beings were, in effect, cremated publicly that September day. They were in the air around the World Trade Center, too; they were part of the mix that people breathed into their lungs.

Government officials from the president on down have told the nation since September that the changes forced upon us will last for many years. Those changes may turn out to include the changes in people's health -- those people who are debilitatingly ill, and those who merely, inexplicably, sound as if they have colds every day.

And the boundaries of the uncertainty keep expanding. Last month, the union representing postal workers said that at least 87 workers handling mail at a facility in Gaithersburg, Md. -- mail that had been irradiated to guard it against possible anthrax contamination -- had reported nausea and problems with their eyes and with breathing. Physicians on Capitol Hill reported that 73 Senate staff members were suffering similar symptoms, raising concerns that the irradiation used to combat anthrax in the mail may present its own problems to people exposed to the envelopes.

Also: Federal aviation safety officials cautioned pilots against applying too much pressure to rudders, as they investigated the crash last November of American Airlines Flight 587 shortly after it took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. This was the plane crash that seemingly was unrelated to terrorism -- the tail fin, rudder and two engines fell off. Investigators have stressed that they don't yet know why it happened. Something on that flight took place to cause a catastrophic failure, but no one knows what, exactly. No one can say for sure why that plane went down.

Americans have been known to complain when the government says, "We don't know" as a way to avoid answering questions even when the government really does know the answers. There is something that can be even more troubling than that, though:

When the government says, "We don't know" -- and means it.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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