Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Ground Zero Air More Hazardous Than EPA Admits, Study Says
By Troy Goodman, The Salt Lake Tribune, November 10, 2002

When a team of university-based air pollution scientists reported in February they had found dangerous airborne contaminants drifting over a then-massive World Trade Center rubble pile, the news made some folks at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uneasy. The EPA's job is to monitor air quality and emissions throughout the country and especially at the Ground Zero site in New York City -- where the debris removal job is mostly complete. An agency spokeswoman said administrators bristled when they heard someone had been testing lower Manhattan air without coordinating with EPA beforehand. Even worse was the February media event in which University of California, Davis researchers claimed months worth of government readings on post-Sept. 11 air pollutants' risks were woefully incomplete. "The EPA was very upset that people were taking measurements and coming up with analyses that essentially countered their results," said former UC Davis researcher Kevin Perry, recently hired by the University of Utah to work as an assistant professor in the meteorology department.

According to Perry, news of the alternate findings was a bombshell to the agency. EPA spokeswoman Bonnie Bellow remembers it differently. She said multiple research groups, not just the California team, decided on their own to test Ground Zero-vicinity air. Agency concern only grew when Perry's team and others released data without what EPA administrators considered a scientifically valid "period of review" or thoughtful government input. "Studies were suddenly announced to the press where we did not even have the chance to talk to the investigators," Bellow said. At one mid-February New York Senate subcommittee meeting, lawmakers accused the EPA of misleading the public on the risks of breathing the city's contaminated air. Negligence lawsuits, many with billion-dollar price tags, have sprung up since against the city over cleanup and recovery issues.

In 1997, the EPA adopted new ambient air quality standards by refining pollution measurements to account for times when nearly invisible particles muck up the sky. Now a huge debate, spurred in part by the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse and mysterious respiratory ailments reported by many rescue workers, centers on strengthening air standards even further because the existing rules likely overlook some particles tiny enough to penetrate human airways in deep, harmful ways.

Finer Sampling: UC Davis came into the picture a month after the attacks when someone in the New York office of the Department of Energy (DOE) invited Perry and Thomas Cahill, a UC Davis professor emeritus, to start testing the dust and smoke billowing from the debris pile. More than 2,800 lives were lost when the World Trade Center's twin 110-story towers crum- bled into 3 billion pounds of debris after the intentional crash of terrorist-guided jetliners.

Perry had been a post-doctoral student in California and, with Cahill, now leads an atmospheric research group called DELTA, short for Detection and Evaluation of Long-range Transport of Aerosols, which researches weather patterns and aerosols, the tiniest bits of pollution dispersed into air from a wide variety of sources. From Oct. 2 through mid-December, the group's rooftop air monitor clicked away on top of the DOE office one mile north of Ground Zero. Almost continuously, the DELTA equipment registered unprecedented clouds of "very fine particles" that Perry said should be a red flag in the evaluation of rescue workers' and residents' exposure levels. The group found dangerous levels of sulfur and sulfur-based compounds, which often form airborne sulfuric acid. And there were high silicon readings, too, probably from pulverized glass and other office gear. They also found that the World Trade Center's thousands of gallons of burning oil from its heating systems gave off a steady vapor of nickel and vanadium, metals that doctors warn should not be inhaled over a long time.

The real problem, Perry said, came with the DELTA group's pollution readings of the so-called ultra -fine particulates -- those bits smaller than 0.001 inches in diameter that are suspected of traveling deep into the lungs and causing tissue damage and possibly cancer. EPA's standard "PM2.5" cubic-feet-of-air measurement could have a mix of these fine particulates within, but no protocol can yet pick up those finer bits. And there is no definitive proof of the ill health effects from breathing gunk smaller than the PM2.5 standard. "Everybody in our field knows ultra-fines are very likely to be hazardous to our health," Perry said. "The EPA can't regulate such things until they have proof in hand or they'll get hammered in court."

Unmistakable Health Risks: Arden Pope knows a lot about the health risks of breathing microscopic waste. He had nothing to do with the DELTA research, but Pope said the conditions around Ground Zero are bound to cause scientific debate because a growing body of evidence shows "ultra-fines" trigger human disease. After seeing preliminary data from Perry's study, Pope agreed "for those exposed to these levels of pollution, both short-term and long-term, they can expect an increased risk of cardiopulmonary illness," a broad term used for heart and lung disease.

In March, Pope and scientists from around the nation collaborated on a Journal of the American Medical Association study that found city dwellers who breathe ultra-fine pollution coming from common sources -- vehicles, power plants and manufacturing sites -- have an increased risk of lung cancer. The study included data from Salt Lake City and more than 100 other metro areas. Other research teams from around the world are looking at human studies to pinpoint pollution's ill effects.
"Basically right now, [scientists] have made the determination that we're going after these fine, combustible particles because that's exactly where the health risks are," Pope said. Not a lot of researchers have looked at what drifts from collapsed-building debris because it rarely happens.

Hollow Reassurances: In the weeks after the terrorist attacks, EPA administrators created a stir by reassuring New Yorkers and others they had not found any dangerous levels of air contaminants that would pose health risks. There was a huge scare triggered by the initial Sept. 11 blaze and the collapse-driven dust storm that enveloped emergency workers, terrified bystanders and city blocks. That dust storm settled relatively quickly, according to DELTA scientists. The more insidious problem came much later as the well-televised debris pile sat smoldering for two months, choking the hordes of rescue workers and anyone within breathing range.

Perry said the EPA's reassurances the smoke was not risky rang hollow for the 90 percent of on-site firefighters already complaining of a severe cough and chronic asthma-like symptoms. Soon the term "World Trade Center cough" became vernacular. Now hundreds more emergency workers are reported to be on medical leave, he said, and at one point 66 percent of residents near Ground Zero complained of similar health problems.

EPA's Bellow, who runs the agency's Manhattan communications office a few blocks north of Ground Zero, said more than 10,000 government air samples were taken during the clean up -- never showing a significant long-term risk. Her own watery eyes and scratchy throat eventually cleared up. She also said regulators and scientists on her staff welcome any outside research on the debris smoke's health impact, as long as the proper coordination takes place. Bellow insisted the EPA's safe-air assurances were not premature, but a well-researched opinion honoring public health. She considers the outcry a result of media's ability to take safety claims out of context. "What we were talking about [in the safe-air assurance] was primarily the risks posed by the effects of asbestos," Bellow explained. No research group, EPA- or university-led, detected heavy levels of ambient Ground Zero asbestos. The relatively large fibers would pose a major airway hazard.

Solving Dirty Air Puzzle: Perry said the importance of his group's very-fine pollution findings is not to prove the EPA lied or set out to deceive. Rather, it is useful to show that officials failed to take into account how much emergency workers, spending large amounts of time on-site, may have been breathing in known carcinogens. The EPA's PM2.5 measurements of the area, he said, mirror DELTA's pollution readings near the site. But a more thorough sampling protocol would catch all the ultra-fines his group found and offer a clearer picture of worker exposure and, possibly, what is behind the mysterious cough.

Plus, any adverse health effects to the public, experts say, are likely to come from indoor air pollution caused by very fine particulates seeping through fabrics and tiny building crevices. Tammy Meltzer, leader of the tenants' association at Gateway Plaza on the edge of Ground Zero, recently told the Boston Globe that city-hired cleaners had removed dust from the residences in October and November 2001 before occupants were allowed to return. "But the fires were still burning in late December," Meltzer told the Globe. "Nobody came back to do any retesting. We don't know if our apartments are safe."

BYU's Pope said very-fine particulate research must go forward since the airborne elements are everywhere, not just in the aftermath of tragic destruction. "In the end," he said, "the only way to really understand is to study these issues very broadly and very carefully so that when events like this happen, we can add another piece to the puzzle."

This article contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my efforts to advance understanding of democracy, economic, environmental, human rights, political, scientific, and social justice issues, among others. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material in this article is distributed without profit for research and educational purposes.

Take me back to learn more