MITCHEL COHEN: Poisoning the Big Apple — Forgotten History in the Lead-up to 9/11


Two years before what we now know as 9/11, a terrorist attack hit New York—or so we were told. U.S. government officials falsely announced that Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, had sent to New York City some arcane virus that was killing birds, mostly crows, and that it could be transmitted to people by mosquitoes. Panic ensued. The mysterious disease threatened to infect and kill people throughout the metropolitan area. New Yorkers were told to prepare for emergency measures around West Nile virus and that without such measures thousands of people were likely to die.

“September 4th, 1999, was an extremely important day in the history of New York City,” one analyst noted. Indeed, the future history of our city, and the country as well, was about to change. I was strolling through Pros­pect Park in Brooklyn on that warm day near the end of summer. Hun­dreds of people were out in the park sunbathing, reading, kissing, walking their dogs. Kids were everywhere playing baseball and soccer. Suddenly, helicopters buzzed just above the tree line spraying a substance we later learned to be malathion—one of a class of organophosphate pesticides invented as a nerve gas2 by the Nazis in World War II—spewing out in substantial bursts.

The Mayor of New York City at that time, Rudy Giuliani, ordered the toxic pesticide malathion to be sprayed from helicopters, airplanes, and trucks to kill mosquitoes, poisoning the city’s population, wildlife, soil, parks, and waterways. They drenched 526-acre Prospect Park that after­noon, spraying the malathion over and onto hundreds of children. There were a few police cars patrolling, but none of them warned people to get out of the park and off the streets. I ran like a lunatic trying to get the kids away from the spray. And then I held my breath for as long as I could and ran out of the park.

Over the next few days, the City sprayed the subways, food markets, sewer system, schools, religious institutions, daycare centers, and restau­rants. Spraying also occurred over or near open waterways. A scientist working with the newly formed No Spray Coalition, Jonathan Logan, and videographer Roy Doremus, followed the trucks and filmed the City spray­ing pregnant women on 125th Street in Harlem early in the evening. The Coalition presented the video as evidence in a lawsuit filed a few months later.3 (The No Spray Coalition won its lawsuit after seven years, achiev­ing in 2007 a historic settlement with the City administration.) Reporters covering the suit saw the video in court, and that night every TV station broadcast the alarming footage.

The Instructive Case of Dr. Omar Shafey

Dr. Marcelle Layton contributed to the pesticide drumbeat with an article on the spray campaign in the CDC’s journal, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. But even here, in the supposedly objective halls of science, political intrigue abounds: Layton’s report was chosen at the last-minute to replace a very critical article by Florida epidemiologist Dr. Omar Shafey, who headed the Florida Department of Health’s Division of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects about spraying malathion. Shafey’s study, “Surveil­lance for Acute Pesticide-Related Illness During the Medfly Eradication Program—Florida, 1998,” detailed 138 reported cases of pesticide-related illnesses among Florida residents following intensive malathion spraying there.

Dr. Shafey’s findings were slated to appear in the October 22, 1999 issue of MMWR. But on October 19, two days before publication, Dr. Ste­ven Ostroff, then acting deputy director for science and public health at the CDC, called the editor of the MMWR, and convinced him to bump Shafey’s article critical of spraying and replace it with Layton’s. The CDC had come under pressure from New York City Hall, which did not want to contend with an anti-pesticide article just as their experimental spray program was going into full gear. At the very last minute, Dr. Shafey was asked to alter statistics and omit key passages. Shafey refused. Layton’s pro-spraying article was published instead. Shafey’s very important article did not ran until November 12, 1999, after the spray campaign in New York had ended for the season and too late to have any influence on breaking events.

Shafey was clear about why his article had been pulled: “It is a sim­ple cover-up and I have little doubt that we are being censored to protect Giuliani’s Senate bid. The CDC director should be ashamed of his complicity in suppressing a scientific report for political reasons.” Shafey explained that the NYC spraying began after the outbreak had already peaked, indicating that the City’s spray program had little to do with pro­tecting the people of New York City and everything to do with politics and appearances.

Ostroff’s complicity with New York City officials in their pressure to delay publication of Shafey’s scientific article was a deliberate attempt to postpone New Yorkers from learning the truth behind their frequent dos­ing of malathion. Ostroff himself was on-site as CDC WNV coordinator during much of the early decision-making in New York, and he testified the following year as the City’s expert witness in the lawsuit brought by the No Spray Coalition. One hand washes the other, and Ostroff in turn received cooperation from the City in conducting the CDC’s door-to-door sero-survey in parts of Queens and Staten Island. Ostroff’s involvement revealed that the hierarchy at the highest echelons of public health in this country was willing to suppress scientific reports that exposed the health dangers of pesticides, for political purposes.

Dr. Shafey continued his research on workers exposed to pesticides on the job, but he was harassed and ultimately sacked for resisting pressure from his supervisors to present results more pleasing to powerful agriculture interests. Instead of leading to collective outrage and action against the firing of Dr. Shafey, many researchers and health providers retreated into silence, for fear that the same might happen to them.

Pesticides and Biowarfare in the Lead-Up to 9/11

All told, that first year, seven people (four in New York City) died from what officials said was West Nile encephalitis. And over the next twelve years, a grand total of twenty-six people died in New York City from West Nile viral encephalitis, out of a total of 198 people who contracted the disease. Yet in the year 2000 alone, 2,680 people died in New York City from the common flu. Each year since, the flu has averaged close to three thousand deaths in the City. Many others died from heart disease, chronic fatigue, immune disorders, asthma, cancer, and infections associ­ated with AIDS—conditions that are also caused or exacerbated by pesticide spraying. Those diseases involved far more deaths than West Nile, but no “emergency” had been declared for them. West Nile became the first in an annual train of announced emergencies concerning potentially pandemic diseases. Next was anthrax. That one dropped out of the news when the powdered anthrax—sent to key officials in government and media—turned out to have been “weapons grade” and traced to the U.S. Army’s top-secret biowarfare laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Next came the great smallpox scare and mandatory vaccination edicts. And then came bubonic plague, SARS, Avian Flu, Swine Flu, and finally Zika. Officials said each would require emergency measures, bypassing normal civil liberties and environmental protections. Each time government and media spread panic, pharmaceutical corporations sold hundreds of millions of dollars of worth­less drugs.

Beginning with West Nile in 1999, each time a new health scare was announced, so too were more facets of a massive surveillance and repressive apparatus nailed into place under the rubric of a “health emergency.” The USA Patriot Act, for example, had already been written and was waiting for the right moment to be introduced as legislation by the time 9/11 occurred. Proponents of the repressive legislation (with the help of a fearful populace) pocketed millions of dollars in drug company campaign donations while chipping away at laws protecting freedom of speech and assembly, hammer­ing nail after nail into the Bill of Rights’ coffin.


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