The ugly truth: One mother’s fight to expose the hazards at Ground Zero

Associated Press / Stuart Ramson
Students returned to Stuyvesant High School — some wearing dust masks — just a month after the 9/11 attacks, while the wreckage at Ground Zero still smoldered and toxic dust still blanketed much of Downtown. In the ensuing months, dozens of teachers and students at the school reported respiratory problems, but the government still denied there were any health risks.


Jenna Orkin was living in Brooklyn on 9/11, when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed into a smoldering pile of rubble and a cloud of toxic dust that enveloped Lower Manhattan. But her son was just a few blocks away from Ground Zero, as a student at Stuyvesant High School.

Not long afterwards, with the Environmental Protection Agency and city officials denying that there was any health risk from the ubiquitous dust that permeated Downtown, the Department of Education decided to resume classes at the elite high school just a month later — while the rubble of Ground Zero still smoldered.

Orkin didn’t believe the reassurances, but she struggled in the face of government denials and misinformation to convince her son that it was dangerous to be so close to Ground Zero.

She was eventually proved right — with government statistics now confirming that exposure to the dust killed at least 322 Ground Zero recovery workers and sickened more than 17,439 others with respiratory issues or cancer — and even the DOE eventually acknowledged the dangers, having found lead dust levels that exceeded federal and local standards in three Stuyvesant classrooms five months after the city returned students to the school. But at the time, Orkin said, the EPA repeatedly lied about the dangers of being Downtown. And making matters worse, many media outlets credulously reported the EPA’s misinformation as fact, and “grossly misled” the public.

Orkin and a small but growing cadre of allies battled relentlessly to make people see the ugly truth.

“We had to fight the EPA to clean up Lower Manhattan and they lied about the air quality,” Orkin said. “It was a constant fight.”

Her activism took her through hours upon hours of congressional hearings, press conferences, and meetings where she and other environmental activists aiming to educate each other and the public with the evidence of the hazards.

Orkin chronicles her fight in “Ground Zero Wars: The Fight to Reveal the Lies of the EPA in the Wake of 9/11 and Clean Up Lower Manhattan.” In her book, Orkin recounts the very personal story of how she and other local activists had to fight the government to uncover the actual dangers of living and working around Ground Zero in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

After a decade, the public can clearly see the impact on the recovery workers and neighbors, but Orkin said scientists had long been warning of the “extraordinary” levels of contaminants at Ground Zero, but their voices were initially drowned out by a concerted campaign of government disinformation, which she thinks is a lesson to remember in an era of fake news and false narratives.

“There’s a bigger underlying message. This is only one tragedy, but it’s emblematic of the general modus operandi of the government,” Orkin said. “You have to do your own research and have to be on site yourself. You’ll never get the real picture otherwise.”

“Ground Zero Wars” is available on

Associated Press / Kathy Willens
Like Orkin, many parents of Stuyvesant High School students protested the Environmental Protection Agency’s denial of the dangers of the toxic dust and debris at nearby Ground Zero.

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9 Responses to The ugly truth: One mother’s fight to expose the hazards at Ground Zero

  1. Excellent article. Thank you for bringing attention to the environmental impact of 9/11, and to Jenna Orkin, who has been relentless in this fight. People should have been held accountable. With all of their illnesses, the “walking dead,” the LEAST they could see happen is some people being sent to jail for the lies told about the environmental impact of 9/11.

  2. Edward Westwood

    Its the ugly truth that keeps on given . Ms whitman EPA head said all is well no problem ? 9 years later i got bladder cancer

    • I would imagine that you are the Edward Westwood who says on Facebook that you were a K9 handler. i’ve sent you a message. thank you greatly for your most powerful comment.

  3. As a fellow 9/11 parent — I live on Duane St and my kids were then 3 and almost-7 — I admire Jenna Orkin’s concern for her son’s and other schoolkids’ health. However, I don’t see the purpose of conflating deadly exposures suffered by Ground Zero pit workers with exposures to students and others whose schools (e.g., Stuyvesant H.S.) were half-a-dozen or more blocks away. The differences in exposures were almost certainly several orders of magnitude (i.e., at least 100-fold).

    The article cites three Stuyvesant classrooms with elevated lead levels — a problem, to be sure, but seemingly not a catastrophe. If I recall correctly, the most tangible symptom presented by returning students when the school re-opened on Oct. 9, 2001 was headaches induced by elevated carbon dioxide levels due to deliberately lowering ventilation air intake. Of course, carcinogens and other toxins do their deadly work under the radar, but at least some area schools (including my son’s PS 150) were scrubbed thoroughly before they were re-opened.

    There were also other concerns, including the educational and emotional needs of the students whose schools were shuttered, the same for the students at the schools that took them in (e.g., Brooklyn Tech for Stuy, PS 3 for PS 150), and the mental health of residents who had to cope with post-traumatic stress, the desolate quiet of our streets, and, in the worst cases, the loss of loved ones. In that light, re-opening the schools may not have been as arbitrary and unwise as this article (and Ms. Orkin) assume.

    • Thank you for your measured response. The book was written in part to address these issues.
      There were indeed other symptoms such as new onset asthma, rashes and various forms of bronchitis. One Stuyvesant student had to be taken to the emergency room – for asthma which had lain dormant since she was seven – after swimming in the Stuyvesant pool which had not been cleaned. In addition, the million dollar abatement of the Stuyvesant building had excluded the ventilation system. These are some of the reasons we lobbied Congress (successfully) to re-clean the schools of Ground Zero in the summer of ’02.
      Of course you’re correct about the exposure of students relative to that of Ground Zero workers. However, as you may learn from the Downtown Express article “9/11 Victim Compensation Fund isn’t just for First Responders” there are twelve cancer cases thus far among GZ students. One needs also to bear in mind the quiescent period for cancer which can be calculated in decades.

      • i should have written “twelve cancer cases IN THE FUND” for as lawyer Michael Barisch indicates, applicants sometimes have to be turned away if their application falls outside the statute of limitations.

      • Thanks for acknowledging my distinction between Ground Zero exposures and Stuy and other school exposures. It’s too bad the story leaned heavily on the former instead of focusing on the latter.

        I also worry about “the missing denominator,” i.e., comparison groups. If one Stuy student out of 4,000 had a resurgence of asthma, on the face of it that doesn’t seem out of line with normal samples. And the Stuy student quoted in the other D Express article you cited talked about the school’s having re-opened the week after 9/11 when as you know it was four weeks later. And while a dozen reported cancer cases among GZ students is worrisome as well as tragic, we should know the prevalence among comparison groups.

        I’m sure I sound nitpicky, but I’m a statistician by trade and believe it’s important to make sound statistical comparisons. Perhaps your book has such, but the article certainly didn’t.

        • You’re entirely right that the school reopened four weeks, not one, after 9/11.
          The student who had a resurgence of asthma was cited only as an example of what happened other than headaches (a subject you raised in your original comment.) Her experience was an anecdote illustrating the effect of not cleaning the pool. It was not offered for any statistical significance. I did not address statistics because one of the problems we faced was that the kids, not being unionized, were not studied early on. So all we had to go on was what the Deputy Schools Chancellor referred to disparagingly as “anecdotal evidence.” He was right but we had no alternative. However, according to a NIOSH study, 50-60% of the faculty (who WERE eligible to be studied) reported new onset respiratory symptoms after 9/11.
          I’m glad you responded because this gives me the opportunity also to point out an instance that may have resulted from the high levels of lead in the school, (a subject you also addressed in your original comment) however innocuous such results may seem. Again, this is an event, not to be interpreted for any numerical significance.
          Shortly after the school reopened, Chancellor Harold O. Levy set up a temporary office for himself in the building to demonstrate how safe the air was. One freshwoman told him she didn’t agree. He replied that if she transferred out, she wouldn’t be allowed back. Levy himself left at the end of the week. The freshwoman stayed and in February had to undergo two spinal taps whereupon she was diagnosed with pseudotumor cerebrii, a condition which may be linked to exposure to lead. As I’m sure you know, proving cause and effect is complicated but there it is.
          I entirely agree that it would be helpful to know the instances of different kinds of cancer in the age group we’re talking about.

  4. With Westwood getting bladder cancer, so did Brooklyn resident and AEC sax player Joseph Jarman, racing over to serve. Tenor sax Sonny Rollins was caught in his downtown apartment; never recovered. Ground Zero is the only ‘crime scene of the century’ open to the public. Whitman is asked her opinion on current environmental questions based on her service at Ground Zero. Air carried dust and flesh above Canal. Air has no EPA boundaries. This is truly an upside down mirror. Y T S A

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