Racing Against Time
The initial response to the tragedy was nothing short of impressive. While scores of emergency workers were responding on the scene, wheels were turning all across the country; wheels which did not exist even a decade ago, before interagency integration.
Of most immediate concern were the vulnerabilities of the rescue workers. Simple compassion dictated that they enter ground zero immediately, whether adequate protection was available or not. Soon, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and other government agencies were in place with respirator masks, while washing stations were set up to provide shelter, shade, and places for workers to wash and change clothes. OSHA has been fit-testing respirators for workers involved in the rescue and recovery on an ongoing basis.
Asbestos – A Once and Future Worry
One potential problem which comes to mind upon seeing the two-inch carpet of dust covering lower Manhattan is, of course, exposure to asbestos. Luckily, only the first
40 floors of Tower No. 1 incorporated asbestos in their design. To date, the EPA has collected several hundred air and dust samples from the work site and surrounding area, with under 50 of them above standard. This may be due to wetting of the site ordered soon after rescue attempts began.
According to EPA Communications Coordinator Bonnie Bellow, “The main risk is exposure to asbestos over long periods of time. It takes years of exposure in an occupation, and it takes many years before the onset of any kind of disease.” While the EPA has had a somewhat spotty record regarding assessment of occupational and environmental risks, Brooke Mossman, a pathology professor at the University of Vermont Medical School, concurs. “I would call this an acute exposure, (but) probably insufficient in duration to cause disease,” she said. Even so, many owners of buildings surrounding ground zero have initiated their own cleanups through outside contractors, with all materials treated as asbestos. A survey of these buildings, some of which may also be razed as part of cleanup, is as yet incomplete.
Other Contaminants – A Rogue’s Gallery
Of lesser but still substantial concern are several other possible contaminants, including dioxin, volatile organics (VOCs), carbon monoxide, silica (primarily from glass dust), lead, and freon, which is still often used in refrigeration.
Dioxin levels appear to have generated several above-standard test results, but levels have died down since the last fires on-site have been extinguished. The respirators currently provided to rescue workers protect from exposure to dioxin.
Volatile organic compounds, possibly including jet fuel components and stored gasoline, have also largely dissipated now that fires are out. They are being continually monitored by EPA’s Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyser, a highly sophisticated mobile laboratory on a bus. This device closely mimics the unit used in Kuwait during the Gulf War to monitor the effects of the massive oil well fires set when Iraq’s Republican Guard were being forced to leave that country.
Likewise, carbon monoxide, silica, lead, and freon testing have revealed no situations worthy of concern. In fact, the World Trade Center’s freon tanks have been located and are intact. The freon will be recycled after it is removed.
Escape From New York?
Early on in the federal response, air and dust samples from as far away as Brooklyn and New Jersey were taken in an effort to determine the scale of the problem, and results were negligible. Even so, other avenues exist for hazardous substances to move into the environment at large.
The EPA and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection sampled drinking water from thirteen water mains in lower Manhattan on Sept. 15th (sampling is typically done at main water distribution points, not at the tap), and neither asbestos nor the usual possible bacterial contamination were detected. In addition, water samples from the Hudson and East Rivers were analyzed. While initial runoff showed elevated levels of PCBs, dioxin, asbestos, and metals, follow-up samples found non-detectable levels, below the level of concern.
The EPA has also collected samples from the 13th Street Pump Station. As a precaution, the Newtown Creek plant is segregating the sewage flows from lower Manhattan, and will not use the sludge from these flows for standard beneficial use.
Monitoring is also ongoing at Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, where wreckage debris is bound after removal. While no cause for alarm has surfaced, FBI crews have been advised to wear respirators and to suppress dust with water when dust levels rise.
‘Reply Hazy’ – Prospects for the Future
While no one can determine with absolute certainty what levels of contamination are safe, one thing seems certain: the rescue workers, Fire and Police personnel, and other respondees to the tragedies of 9-11 are likely to be among the most closely monitored subjects of any medical group in history with regard to both short- and long-term effects. Continuous monitoring stations are scattered throughout the ground zero area to maintain the safety of rescue workers as they progress through the distinct layers of wreckage.
At any rate, the results of efforts to date and the relative smoothness with which they have been undertaken underscore the value of interagency preparedness measures.
As we consider the lessons of the fall of ’01 and celebrate the heroes who have labored bravely in the unique environment of ground zero, perhaps we can extend our concerns of environmental safety to the whole of Earth’s biosphere. Through advanced monitoring and planning, it may be that disaster on an even grander scale can be averted in a similar way, should we choose to believe what our instruments are telling us.
As this story goes to press, an additional factor in this ongoing struggle has surfaced. Reports indicate that more than 4,000 firefighters from ground zero have been suffering persistent coughs and chest pain. This condition has been dubbed ‘World Trade Center cough’ by New York City’s fire department, according to the New York Times.
The chief pulmonary physician for the Fire Department of New York, Dr. David Prezant, has said that many of the firefighters who worked around-the-clock at ground zero are still suffering symptoms six weeks after the disaster. He indicated that over 370 firefighters have been examined, with another 10,000 checkups anticipated within a month, and added “We know medically that from inhaling large particulate matter, the consequences can range from chronic cough to asthma to a higher incidence of heart attacks.”
This development would seem to call into question either the EPA/OSHA findings or the effectiveness of protection equipment usage, at least during the initial rescue efforts.