Media coverage of 9/11 health issues is almost always skewed; the coverage of the new city Department of Health report on World Trade Center dust and childhood asthma was just the latest example.
For instance, the DOH report (properly) noted that only limited conclusions could be reached from the survey - yet the media ignored those cautions to emphasize the worst possible (and least plausible) conclusions.
The study's authors never even claimed that WTC dust caused new cases of asthma in previously healthy children - but you couldn't learn that from the news stories; you had to get underneath the hood of the study.
When it comes to a dispassionate review of 9/11 health claims, all the tenets of sound science go ignored.
The conventional wisdom is that 9/11 dust should be blamed for any illness suffered by anyone who spent any time near Ground Zero - even if it was weeks or months after 9/11. Raise questions about such conclusions, and you'll be accused of defending the terrorists by downplaying the effects of the attack.
Don't get me wrong: There may indeed be some health effects - especially in those who had high levels of exposure to the dust for longer periods of time. (This is especially so for those who failed, for whatever reason, to wear proper protection at the site.)
The Health Department acknowledged that its new study is fraught with biases - but just about every media outlet hyped and misreported the report in a rush to validate yet another class of victims.
Biases? For starters, the survey examined a "self-reported" group of children. In other words, it included only kids whose parents volunteered them. That virtually guaranteed that the report would find an "elevated" number of children with asthma - any kid that didn't have symptoms was less likely to be part of the study.
Another complication: Anyone exposed directly to 9/11 dust was more likely to get medical attention - which means that pre-existing asthma cases were more likely to be detected. (That those cases didn't go undiagnosed is no bad thing - but they don't tell us anything about whether 9/11 dust caused asthma.)
Finally, as DOH admits, exposure to dust may have exacerbated pre-existing, undiagnosed cases of asthma.
Bottom line: There's nothing in the study (or in any other serious research study) to suggest that 9/11 caused asthma in children who never had it.
With all these cumulative biases, the reports that "Children Exposed to 9/11 Air More Likely to Develop Asthma" (as the Village Voice headline put it) are simply wrong.
Deputy Health Commissioner (and study co-author) Lorna Thorpe told me that almost all the media reports on her study failed to capture these critical nuances.
Again, this is a recurring media problem. Think back to the case of NYPD Det. James Zadroga, which drew top billing on the network evening news broadcasts.
Zadroga, 34, was the first person whose death was "officially" linked to aftereffects of 9/11, after an autopsy by a New Jersey medical examiner. But then New York City's medical examiner reviewed the findings - and found that Zadroga's death was associated with his use of painkilling drugs rather than 9/11 dust. There was far less fanfare about that finding - so the original reports about the cause of death remain widely believed.
Recall, too, NYPD Officer Cesar Borja, whose son was a guest of Sen. Hillary Clinton at the State of the Union address only hours after his father's premature death from lung disease.Borja became a symbol of the "second round of 9/11 victims," with press accounts saying he'd rushed downtown to rescue office workers on 9/11. Now it appears that Borja was not sent to the site until the end of that December, and served fewer than 20 shifts.
Politicians have vowed to spend over $1 billion on people presumed to have mysterious lung disease caused by the World Trade Center collapse, inspired in part by public sympathy for figures like Zadroga, Borja and now asthmatic school children.
The reality is, we sometimes don't know why people get these diseases.
In fact, the city Medical Examiner determined that Borja's death was due to "idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis." The medical term "idiopathic" means that we don't know the cause.
Misdirected resources are not a good way to show our compassion for children and heroes, nor our contempt for terrorists.