How U.S. Learned the Wrong Health Lessons From 9/11

Brandon Keim

In the fall of 2001, the United States was confronted by two major public health challenges: the anthrax mailings and threat of a biological attack, and the subtler but ultimately more harmful plume of toxic dust that that rose from Ground Zero. The country was prepared for neither.

In the months and years that followed, bioterror proved to be the easier threat to confront, or at least to spend money on. The plume’s damage was harder to address, not least because government officials prematurely insisted on its safety. In both cases, one theme is universal: The wrong decisions were made, and lessons have been incompletely learned.

“I keep getting asked: Are we safer today than on 9/11?” says Laurie Garrett, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of I Heard the Sirens Scream, a new book on 9/11 and its public health aftermath. “My answer is that we’ve spent an enormous amount of money, but I’m not at all convinced that the expenses have made us safer.”

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