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Ill Winds of 9/11:
Little scrutiny for Brooklyn - where attack's toxic smoke drifted
By Laurie Garrett, Newsday
Staff Writer, August 23, 2002
They call it World Trade Center Cough - the hacking, wheezing, horrible
cough that heaves the chests of many who inhaled Ground Zero air after the Sept. 11
terrorist attacks. Scientists and health officials have studied the cough and scoured some
neighborhoods of New York City for victims of inhaled Trade Center debris.
But there is a critical flaw, experts say, in all the research,
Environmental Protection Agency cleanup programs and federal services related to exposure
to World Trade Center debris: The efforts are concentrated on Manhattan, but, except for
the area immediately around Ground Zero, the plume did not spread around the borough. It
went directly to Brooklyn.
Newsday has obtained high-resolution photographs shot on Sept. 11 by
satellites. From these images it is clear that the plume of toxic debris blew from Ground
Zero southeast, across the Brooklyn Bridge, through the neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights,
DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and Park Slope,
across Prospect Park and straight out to Coney Island. Though the plume's density was
highest directly over Ground Zero, throughout the day the plume completely obscured the
Brooklyn Bridge and neighborhoods out to Prospect Park.
On Sept. 11 the plume never crossed Duane Street, which is below Canal
Street, and never moved in a northwesterly direction that might have included significant
parts of TriBeCa and SoHo in Manhattan. Further, studies of the debris indicate its
toxicity may have actually been higher for some chemicals and asbestos as it crossed the
East River, and Brooklyn hospitals report continuing respiratory disease cases. Yet
environmental cleanup services and lung exposure studies have focused exclusively on
residents of Manhattan and Ground Zero workers. Federal and state-funded services have
gone to Manhattan neighborhoods that, according to NASA images, were not directly exposed
to the plume. Only recently has the Federal Emergency Management Agency begun offering air
filters and air-conditioner cleaning to some Brooklyn residents.
The New York Academy of Medicine has sponsored more than a dozen
studies of human health and psychosocial reactions to the events, but none has included
any of the 2.4 million residents of Brooklyn except for firefighters and police officers
who reside in the borough but worked at Ground Zero.
Studies under way at Mt. Sinai Medical School and NYU, through the
state Department of Health - indeed, all federal- and state-funded Sept. 11 health studies
- are limited to Manhattan residents or Ground Zero workers. Even the $9-million air
pollution study that Congress agreed to fund under a bill sponsored by Sen. Hillary Rodham
Clinton (D-N.Y.) but President George W. Bush refused to sign, would study only Manhattan
residents and Ground Zero workers. When asked why Brooklynites would be excluded, Clinton
staffers indicated that nobody from the borough had complained or indicated there was any
need for their inclusion. "For some reason my assumption was the most affected people
were right under the Trade Center. But we all got about as much in Brooklyn," New
York City Council member David Yassky said in an interview.
When the first hijacked jet hit the World Trade Center, Yassky, whose
constituency takes in the Brooklyn neighborhoods most densely covered by the plume in NASA
images, was near a polling place on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, campaigning in the
primary being held that day. He saw an enormous black cloud descend upon the neighborhood,
then raced to his headquarters in Brooklyn Heights, three miles closer to Ground Zero. As
he stepped out of his car, Yassky recalled, he was immediately enveloped in gray dust.
"There was a film of dust on everything - on cars, stores, everywhere in Brooklyn
Heights. If you were there, as I was, you saw several hours of debris rain down on your
neighborhood," he said. "When you think about where all the scientific studies
and social services have focused, well, I'm stunned. It's kind of amazing that nobody
analyzed the plume" before deciding how to focus studies and services.
Throughout the fall, as the fires consumed Ground Zero, prevailing wind
directions varied. But between Sept. 11 and Dec. 14, when the inferno finally ended,
National Weather Service data indicate, more than 80 percent of the time winds carried the
fumes and potential toxins along the same path observed on Sept. 11 - directly across
Downtown Brooklyn and out toward Coney Island, or the Rockaways in southern Queens. On
some autumn days the winds blew hard enough to carry the plume into Nassau County.
"The data is beginning to materialize saying the most important area outside of lower
Manhattan was Brooklyn," said environmental scientist Paul Lioy of Rutgers
University. Lioy heads a large team of federal and academic scientists that is trying to
determine precisely what was in the plume and fire-smoke, and where it fell day by day.
"This was a very horrendous air pollution event," Lioy said
in an interview. "The tremendous crush of all this material was horrific. You had
dust, smoke, fires, fumes, the remnants of those tragic planes. It was a very complex
event, unlike anything we or anybody else has ever seen."
Well over 95 percent of the debris fell during the first 24 hours.
Throughout that period, according to NASA images, the debris blew into Brooklyn. Lioy's
team collected dust samples from three lower Manhattan locations on Sept. 12 and submitted
them to a battery of costly and tedious analytical tests, ranging from electron microscope
scrutiny to gas chromatograph chemical tests.
The 110 stories of the Twin Towers featured thousands of plate-glass
windows that exploded into invisible, microscopic projectiles of lung-piercing silica
glass. Samples collected from all sites contained large amounts of microscopic glass
fibers, most of them less than a micron in diameter and more than 75 microns long -
precisely in the minuscule size range to wreak havoc with human lungs. "The glass
fiber was a surprise to everybody," Lioy said. "It was one of those things that
we never anticipated."
The variability of the debris with distance was also a surprise.
Samples collected just one block from the World Trade Center, on Cortlandt Street, were
composed of pulverized concrete, glass, unburned or partially burned jet fuel, and
construction materials. The pH of the material was an astonishing 11.5 - far more alkali
than anything the human lung, with a normally acidic pH of about 4.0, would naturally be
exposed to or is equipped to handle.
Samples collected on Market Street, near the East River, were less
alkali but still a remarkable pH of 9.3. While the heavy concrete content seems to have
decreased with distance, the Market Street sample contained more than three times as much
chrysotile asbestos - the form that can produce severe lung disease - as did dust close to
the World Trade Center. Heavy metal content - such as zinc, strontium, lead and aluminum -
also increased with distance. So did potentially toxic organic chemicals, some of which
are considered carcinogens, such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and PAHs (polycyclic
Fire experts speculate that the area immediately around the World Trade
Center got hit with the heaviest substances - the pulverized concrete, steel, office
equipment, cars and construction material. But the tremendous heat from the jet-fueled
inferno created an updraft that lifted small, lighter particulates and gases up, away from
Ground Zero and toward the East River.
Unfortunately, Lioy writes in a scientific study entitled "Lessons Learned,"
little is known about the debris that reached Brooklyn because nobody monitored the
Dr. Gerald Lombardo, chief of pulmonary care at New York Methodist
Hospital, has seen many cases of what he believes to be World Trade Center Cough among
Brooklyn residents who do not work in lower Manhattan. "I'm pretty much in touch with
all the leading pulmonary programs in New York," Lombardo said in an interview,
"and I would say that the number of pulmonary visits has just skyrocketed for upper
In his Park Slope hospital, Lombardo insisted, "the number of
visits clearly doubled, and that has stayed high. It's not surprising to me that this
population will be complaining for some time." Lombardo is especially concerned about
the microscopic glass exposure, which, he said, could "mimic the pathophysiology of
In Brooklyn Heights, the Long Island College Hospital also saw a
"huge influx" of respiratory cases, Dr. Tucker Woods, an emergency room
physician, said. Dr. Walfred Leon of SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn calls
NASA's images "amazing," arguing they "certainly make a case for Brooklyn
exposure." Leon has conducted a pilot study, funded by the Patrolman's Benevolent
Association, of police officers who were working at Ground Zero between Sept. 11 and Oct.
31 and subsequently experienced respiratory problems. He found a correlation between their
locations and the path of the plume.
Like many other Brooklyn physicians, Leon believes he is seeing an
increase in reactive airways disease - a poorly understood syndrome that can lead to
lifelong breathing problems as a result of a single exposure to an acute pulmonary
irritant. "We've never encountered anything like this before in medicine,"
said Leon, who thinks the chemical and particulate complexity of the debris and smoke
exceed anything pulmonologists have previously encountered. Indeed, he argues, World Trade
Center Cough may very well be an entirely new disease syndrome. Leon thinks the NASA
photographs should be used to guide scientific investigation, setting priorities on who
ought to be studied.
The city Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention soon will announce a unique program aimed at tracking 200,000 New Yorkers for
20 years to see what impact Sept. 11 has had on their health. Sometime this fall the World
Trade Center Registry, as it is called, will begin enrolling participants. Though details
of the study design are still being determined, including the boundaries of the
residential population, it is currently envisioned as limited to Manhattan residents and
Ground Zero workers, Sandra Mullin, spokeswoman for the city department, said.
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