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'Toxic soup' at Ground Zero?
By Rachel Clark, Disaster News Network, September 14, 2002

"When the towers came down, all that's toxic in there -- when crushed and burned -- is very deadly," said Florence Coppola of United Church of Christ (UCC) National Disaster Ministries. "When all of the different items came together, there's no way to know what they formed. It's beyond asbestos, there's mercury and unknown chemicals."

In conjunction with the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), as well as Mt. Sinai Medical Center, the United Church of Christ is trying to help people who have been affected by the chemical-laden dust that coated parts of New York City and New Jersey when the trade centers collapsed Sept. 11, 2001. "We're trying to deal with these issues," said Coppola. "To help people who live in the neighborhood whose homes were never properly cleaned, we're responding to concerns for schoolchildren who for months breathed all the stuff in the air."

According to Joann Hale, who is also working with UCC on this issue, the chemicals already present in office buildings are a hazard to anyone breathing the air. "We're looking at the asbestos, the mercury from computers that were there ... just the dust itself has a lot of small minute particles of different materials," Hale said. The long-term effects of breathing these chemicals have yet to be determined, but the short-term effects have manifested in adult-onset asthma, wheezing and a hacking New Yorkers have dubbed the "World Trade Center cough."

Less than a week after the terrorist attacks, NYCOSH issued an alert and fact sheet informing the public about the dangers associated with the dust. "The dust from the collapse that had blanketed lower Manhattan -- and some significant portions had ended up in Brooklyn as well -- almost certainly contained a soup of toxic materials, including asbestos, lead, silica, fiberglass, and concrete dust, which is highly alkaline," said Jonathan Bennett, public affairs director for NYCOSH. "We knew it contained those things because we knew they were in the building because it already collapsed."

In August, the EPA extended its deadline for residents in lower Manhattan to request free asbestos testing and cleaning in their homes. On Aug. 16, the EPA said that 822 people requested testing and 2,997 requested testing and cleaning. "Some dust from the World Trade Center collapse has been shown to contain asbestos and other contaminants," the EPA said in a prepared release. "EPA believes this action-oriented cleanup and testing program will reduce risk of possible long-term exposure and related health effects."

However, the EPA is offering no assistance to business owners or residents who do not request cleaning. Bennett said many tenants and businesses have decided to clean up the dust themselves, but that can be dangerous. Bennett said people have the misconception that the dust is not dangerous, because that was the initial response the EPA took to the disaster. "People should not be exposed to this dust, or be exposed as little as possible," he said. "Because it contains asbestos, which is a carcinogen. It's caused lung cancer and cancer of the lining of the lung. There's lead poisoning, mercury poisoning, fiberglass is a lung and respiratory tract irritant, silica causes silicosis, pulverized concrete is extremely alkaline and causes very strong irritation to the mucous membranes."

According to Bennett, signs of exposure to these chemicals have already manifested in volunteers and emergency workers who responded to the Sept. 11 attacks. "We know workers who have been exposed to this dust and gotten it in their respiratory tract and have come down with symptoms of respiratory stress," he said. "We've seen cases of adult-onset asthma. Fifty firefighters are on disability as a result of exposure to the dust when they were doing the rescue and recovery work on the site. So we know this stuff is definitely very hazardous and we think people must have been exposed to it."

Hale also noticed that disaster responders were affected by the toxic dust. "In the beginning, people were exposed: The Red Cross, Salvation Army -- not just those at Ground Zero, but also those near Ground Zero and some of them live there and they're exposed all of the time."

Coppola said people need to think not only of those who perished in the fallen trade center towers but of the hundreds of people who volunteered to help recovery efforts. "People have respiratory problems," she said. "Paid and volunteer workers who spent time at Ground Zero are now having adult-onset asthma, and these are people who have never suffered before. Thinking more in terms of not only people who died, but survivors, they're part of those who that day were covered in ash with things that are unknown and are now at risk because they had first contact. These are firefighters, construction workers, volunteers with The Salvation Army and Red Cross and others who were there for months."

The way to avoid further health risks, Bennett said, is to clean up this dangerous dust. But the dust is so light, it's difficult to clean without getting it back into the air. "It needs to be cleaned up in ways that minimize exposure of workers who do the cleaning," he said. "We think it would be very hazardous for a tenant to try to clean up their own apartments. They would be very unlikely to have the equipment and training necessary."

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