Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

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 aromatic hydrocarbons).
    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 borough.
    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 respiratory problems."
    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 asbestos disease."
    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.    

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