Caregiving: WTC's toxic dust clouds -- 1

By ALEX CUKAN, UPI Health Correspondent  |  Sept. 14, 2006 at 5:58 PM
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ALBANY, N.Y., Sept. 14 (UPI) -- It's one thing to be killed or injured in a terrorist attack, but it's quite another to die or become ill because government bureaucrats give incorrect or conflicting reports.

That's what makes the plight of 40,000 first responders, construction workers and volunteers so tragic, because as they stepped up to rescue people from the burning World Trade Center and later dig through rubble looking for body parts, government officials did not stress respiratory precautions.

"Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington that their air is safe to breath and their water is safe to drink," Christie Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in 2001, said one week after the attacks.

When the first tower collapsed releasing a toxic dust cloud in Lower Manhattan, I knew the dust would be harmful, but no one seemed to be wearing a respirator -- a few wore a disposable dust mask, which would provide little protection in this type of situation. I called several government agencies hoping that if there was a respirator shortage I could make it public and perhaps a company would provide respirators quickly.

All the agencies said respirators would be provided, but the response of the New York State Emergency Management Office was the most memorable.

"Little lady, if they need respirators, they'll have respirators," a spokesman for the SEMO told me on Sept. 13, 2001. Actually, the respirators weren't available until several weeks into the recovery, and when they arrived, workers and volunteers said they were told the wrong respirators had been ordered.

I started reporting on the Sept. 11 attacks minutes after the first plane crashed, and after the first two weeks I was editing the daily updates on the World Trade Center six days a week. The days were long, but when I had the chance I tried to confirm what government officials were saying about the potential health effects at Ground Zero. It was like nailing Jell-O to the wall.

Whitman continued to make statements on the safety of air and water in Lower Manhattan, and in turn, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said the air quality near Ground Zero "is safe."

"I'm no expert on it. So I have to rely on the EPA and the state agencies and the city agencies and the private monitoring," the mayor said. "And all of that says the problems that this created are not dramatic. They're not health-threatening."

"You smell it and you feel there must be something wrong, but what I'm told is it's not dangerous to your health," he added.

Indeed, the New York City Health Department said because asbestos was used in the construction of the Twin Towers, some asbestos was found in dust, debris and air samples, and individuals working in the area have been advised to take precautions.

"However, most of the air samples have been below levels of concern," the EPA said.

In turn, the New York City Health Department said the risk of developing an asbestos-related illness following an exposure of short duration is extremely low.

I dare say that in the past 20 years there hasn't been a mayor in New York state that hasn't dealt with asbestos abatement for schools and public buildings.

Asbestos abatement has strict procedures to prevent the asbestos fibers from spreading throughout the building, and the workers are required to wear moon suits, gloves, protective eyewear and respirators. They also need training, which usually takes about one day.

One EMS volunteer told me that in the first few days at Ground Zero there were people who had bleeding eyes and were coughing continually, but they would not stop for anything as they looked for survivors.

Some had respirators but did not wear them. Wearing a respirator is no fun; it's hot and it can be hard to breathe and requires some training -- usually a half-hour -- to ensure it fits correctly. Part of the training is explaining the risks of not wearing the respirator.

"For the respirators to work properly, a person needs some training because they must not have any facial hair, but there are still are lot of beards and mustaches on people working at the site," a worker safety advocate told me five years ago.

Because of the special circumstances, Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulatory control over Ground Zero was removed, so there wasn't anyone really enforcing worker safety.

By the end of September 2001 the U.S. Geological Survey had done extensive field testing and found the WTC dust was quite alkaline with a pH of 9.5 to 11.5, which can be corrosive to the skin, eyes and respiratory system. For an article, the USGS told me that its testing results indicated "clean-up of dust and debris should be done with appropriate respiratory and dust control measures." Again, not a surprise for anyone familiar with concrete or building demolition.

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Next: Dust in homes

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Alex Cukan is an award-winning journalist, but she always has considered caregiving her primary job. UPI welcomes comments and questions about this column. E-mail: consumerhealth@upi.com

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