The smoke that is still billowing from the crumbled remains of the World Trade Center does not contain high enough contaminant levels to raise major health concerns, according to health officials.
?At the moment, we really don?t detect any real danger,? says Tina Kreisher, a spokeswoman for the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The agency tested air in Brooklyn on Tuesday evening, a mile downwind from Tuesday?s terrorist attack, and has tested debris at the site of the attack.
New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani says he does not believe there is danger from asbestos or chemicals. ?The Health Department has done tests and at this point it is not a concern,? he says. ?So far, all the tests we have done do not show undue amounts of asbestos or any particular chemical agent that you have to be concerned about.
?The accumulation of it, for people that are down there, can become very, very irritating,? Giuliani says. ?And there were a lot of people whose eyes have been burning, but I don?t think there is any chemical agent we have to worry about at this point.?
Analysis of Tuesday night?s Brooklyn air samples, released on Wednesday, showed lead, asbestos and volatile organic compounds to be undetectable or at low levels of concern for EPA purposes. The air samples showed 0.0048 fibers of asbestos per cubic centimeter, below the level of 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard for airborne exposure in office buildings.
However, although three dust samples collected Tuesday at the World Trade Center collapse site showed low levels of asbestos, a fourth showed a high level. Health officials considered the four dust tests inconclusive, but the EPA is recommending wetting down debris to prevent dissipation into the air, and said workers stirring up ash and debris should wear respiratory masks and protective gear.
Published sources indicate that part of the World Trade Center?s steel structure was coated with asbestos to prevent fire damage, a common practice that was changing just at the time the towers were built in the early 1970s. ?It?s very, very important to put this into perspective,? says Bonnie Bellows, an EPA spokeswoman. ?We expect to find some asbestos in a building of this generation.?
The U.S. Department of Labor has warned that inhaling asbestos can cause asbestosis (scarring of the lungs), lung cancer; and even cancer of the esophagus, stomach, and colon. When a person inhales asbestos, it irritates the lining of the lungs. To recover, the lungs tend to form scar tissue around the irritated areas, and if the scar tissue encases the lungs, the victim will no longer be able to breathe properly.
?The main risk is exposure to asbestos over long periods of time,? Bellows says. ?It takes years of exposure in an occupation, and its takes many years before the onset of any kind of disease.? The actor Steve McQueen died from cancer caused by asbestosis.
Brooke Mossman, a pathology professor at the University of Vermont Medical School, says asbestos-related diseases take 30 or more years to develop after airborne exposure to more significant levels than those measured Tuesday. ?I would call this an acute exposure and probably insufficient in duration to cause disease,? she says.
Dr. George Leikauf, professor of environmental health and pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, says the collapse produced a cloud containing both large and small floating particles that can be very dangerous to the lungs. Large particles of cement, earth and other matter can induce breathing problems by clogging the nose and throat, and cause eye damage by scratching the cornea. Smaller particles, gases, and combustion smoke from the fire and explosions are also highly toxic, consisting of numerous irritants that may trigger airway spasms and bring on asthma attacks.
The EPA continues to test air and dust around the area of the attack. It?s ?one of those cases of don?t be stupid,? Kreisher says. ?If there?s a chance, why not put on the mask??
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