By Ashley Mooney

In the wake of 9/11, the United States suffered a massive public health cover-up, Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for the global health on the Council on Foreign Relations recently told a Duke audience.

Garrett spoke on the public health devastation caused by the attacks on 9/11 and the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic. As only person to win the three “P”s of journalism—the Pulitzer, the Polk and the Peabody— she served as the keynote presenter on March 26 for Duke’s student-led Global Health Week.

Ground Zero on September 13, 2001 by Andrea Booher (FEMA), via Wikimedia Commons.

During her presentation, Garrett showed her photo-essay of September 11, 2001, flashing images of the debris and smog emanating from Ground Zero.

“The plume [of smoke from the Twin Towers’ collapse] swept over—it invaded your lungs, it invaded your soul. We knew that it was toxic but we were told otherwise,” she said. “For four months the debris cleared and for four months we had a chemical soup in New York City…. We now know that a massive cover-up and a true public health catastrophe occurred.”

She noted that although government and public health officials reassured those who were in New York at the time that they were at little risk, chrysotile asbestos and potent carcinogens saturated the air.

“We had all this exposure to a kind of salt that the human body is unable to clear,” she said. “It was akin to throwing lye or Drano down your throat.”

Only the bombing of Dresden produced a comparable amount of exposure to human beings, she said.

Despite data suggesting staggering negative health consequences from exposure to the smoke cloud of 9/11, Garrett said the White House’s primary concern was on the threat of Anthrax infection.

She said the anthrax threats and infections were a form of asymmetric warfare—where one side spends very few resources and has a huge impact on the other side. While those responsible for the biological attacks spent an estimated $200,000, the United States spent millions in chemical forensics and tracking down “phony” tips.

Laurie Garrett speaking at Poptech 2008 by Kris Krug, via Wikimedia Commons.

Although 9/11 devastated the country, Garrett noted that it caused a spike in attention and funding for global health initiatives. This funding, however, was “fast, urgent and sloppy.”

Countries receiving aid had never dealt with such large sums of money before, she said.

She detailed several problems that contribute to this failure, including budgetary problems and political priorities that do not match public-health interests.

The “single greatest failure in global health,” has been the response to AIDS, she said. In June 2011, there were 1.8 million AIDS-related deaths, a decrease from the 2.1 million deaths in 2004. However, an estimated 65-75 million people acquired HIV in 2011, she said.

“I don’t think we win this war by creating one stream of success,” she said. “It requires sustained activism—the momentum slides off—and that is the crisis we’re in right now.”

The Duke Partnership for Service, Duke Global Health Institute, DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy and the Sanford School of Public Policy sponsored the event.