The Dust May Never Settle

How Dangerous Was That Dark Cloud Hanging Over Manhattan?

Long after the World Trade Center's pulverized remains are swept away, New Yorkers may be plumbing the depths of the health and environmental damage wrought by the attack. The pillars of smoke and dust that for days stood in place of the twin towers carried fear through the air: almost immediately, questions were raised about what might be riding the plume.

The Philadelphia Daily News showcased a photograph of the smoke in which hysterical types claimed to see the face of Satan. More secular fears ranged from anthrax to the common, and hazardous, asbestos.

And even if the dust falling into the harbor didn't damage aquatic life, calls for better waterfront infrastructure to handle emergencies are forcing environmentalists to reconsider their plans to revive much of our waterways' fragile ecosystems. Though New York pulled off its version of the Dunkirk evacuation after the attacks, the city was essentially caught with its pants down on the waterfront. New pier restoration work, bulkhead building, and long-opposed dredging may go ahead to guard against that in the future.

A pall over Manhattan
photo by Michael Kamber
A pall over Manhattan

During the week that followed the attack, the acrid smell of burning plastic was so strong that residents far from ground zero mistakenly called in false alarms to fire departments in Queens, Nassau County, Brooklyn, and New Jersey.

Did the chemical smell hint at danger?

"Yes, the building has PCBs, furans, and PVC, lots of PVC especially," Columbia University journalism professor Steven S. Ross wrote in a memo circulated among activists and journalists. Though the initial inferno destroyed some organic compounds, other toxins were likely released as the blaze abated, Ross said.

And then there's the asbestos kicked up by the pancaking of 110 floors in free fall. An e-mail from Ross that circulated among journalists and activists pointed out that "the WTC was the LAST big building in the U.S. to use blow-on asbestos insulation to protect the steel beams from fire's heat."

"The first four of our samples indicate that the hazards posed by the dust are significant," confirmed New York Environmental Law Project attorney Joel R. Kupferman. His group and the Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety organization sampled dust at the WTC site, finding worrying levels of fiberglass and asbestos, as well as other potential hazards. Recovery workers interviewed by the groups reported "trouble breathing, some wheezing and coughing. Many are suffering with severe eye irritation and headaches," according to a report issued by Kupferman. Separately, dermatologist Paul Dantzig wrote to The New York Times Sunday that he was "beginning to see dermatological problems arising from the World Trade Center catastrophe, like foreign-body reactions on the skin and cutaneous infections." He continued, "The kinds of problems that occur on the skin can also occur in the lungs. People who inhaled large amounts of dust and debris from the center's collapse will be at risk of developing granulomas and fibrosis of the lungs. I suggest that they be followed medically and receive X-rays now and periodically over the next few years."

The dust is an immediate concern for Dr. Jacqueline Moline, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "People have been far more affected by dust in the air in the short term than asbestos in the long term," she said. Otherwise healthy people who are sensitive to the clay, concrete, paper, silica, and steel dust are at risk of "developing reactive airways," and runny eyes and noses should alert one to particulate irritation. The key isn't the type of dust, she explained, but the particle size.

Those most vulnerable to the dust storm are people with asthma or underlying conditions, such as cardiopulmonary diseases, that may be aggravated, Moline said.

Air quality tests done by the city haven't found pollutants at levels to threaten city residents, but Ross noted that those tests began 12 hours after the catastrophe. Kupferman contended that public agencies may be suppressing data to speed the relief effort. Referring to the workers possibly at risk, he said, "In this emergency, it is especially crucial not to keep these heroic people in the dark."

Infants and the elderly near the scene should be protected if cleanup efforts stir up dust again. "A good rule of thumb is probably to treat this as you would the worst ozone days," Moline advised.

Asbestos risks jump for those in the WTC "bucket brigade" who take smoke breaks to relieve their stress. Ross pointed out that "there are plenty of documented cases of shipyard workers getting mesothelioma (a cancer of the chest lining, unique to asbestos) after only a few weeks' exposure" to asbestos. "Smoking," he said, "raises the risk drastically. Almost 100 percent of all asbestos workers in the '60s and '70s who smoked have died of mesothelioma." Workers sorting through the rubble were begging for packs to be sent down to the disaster site in the days that followed.

Whether or not they smoked, the workers may have been at great risk from asbestos. "The levels of asbestos that have been found are a problem if you're at ground zero for a sustained period of time," said Moline. Masks worn by emergency teams first on the scene weren't adequate, said Moline, but the gear supplied since then is appropriate.

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