A year after the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, scientists and physicians in New York City are still trying to figure out what tens of thousands of people inhaled that day. Christie Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, says there is nothing to worry about, but New York politicians Jerrold Nadler, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer don’t agree.
911 was not only an air pollution disaster for lower Manhattan, it affected Brooklyn too, in areas where half the 2.5 million residents there live. NASA space photographs show that the black, toxic cloud of World Trade Center debris blew for more than 30 hours directly from Ground Zero to the East River, which separates Manhattan from Brooklyn and Queens. Until Ground Zero fires finally burned out in early December, prevailing winds carried smoke and fumes along the same path every day.
Despite this, all health and stress surveys conducted by the New York Academy of Medicine, the EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the state and city health departments of New York have been limited to Manhattan. The number of people who have been ruled eligible for federal services as a result of exposure to the 9-11 pollution in Brooklyn is, according to Dr. Marc Wilkenfeld of the Columbia University Health Sciences Division, “exactly none.”
New York Rep. Nadler, who kept receiving complaints about the pollution pouring across the East River, says, “In January I said, ‘Get a satellite photo. See where the plume went.’ And the EPA said, ‘There are no satellite photos.’ And when I saw the NASA photos in Newsday six months later, I was livid because I was lied to.”
“That is not true,” EPA spokeswoman Bonnie Bellow says. “He was not told that. We would have no reason to tell the congressman that they didn’t exist when they did.”
Paul Lioy heads up a team of scientists who are trying to determine precisely what was in the plume of debris and smoke, and where it all fell day by day. They collected dust samples from three lower Manhattan locations on September 12 and submitted them to a series of tests, from electron microscope scrutiny to gas chromatography. “This was a very horrendous air-pollution event,” Lioy says. “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.”
There were thousands of windows in the 110 stories of the twin towers that exploded into invisible, microscopic projectiles. The dust samples contained large amounts of microscopic glass fibers, most of them less than a micron in diameter and more than 75 microns long?small enough to pierce human lungs. “The glass fiber was a surprise to everybody,” Lioy says. “It was one of those things that we never anticipated.”
The team was also surprised to find that the content of the pollution varied based on the distance from the towers. Samples collected 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. Samples collected on Market Street, half mile from the site, contained less concrete but three times more asbestos. Heavy metals like zinc, strontium, lead and aluminum also increased with distance, as well as PCBs.
The area immediately around the World Trade Center got hit with the heaviest substances, like pulverized concrete, steel, office equipment, cars and construction material. But the tremendous heat produced by the jet-fueled inferno created an updraft that lifted lighter pollutants and gases upward, towards the East River. It was a sunny day, so the chemicals in the cloud were affected by strong ultraviolet radiation. Most organic chemicals are altered by UV light, and some are transformed into compounds that are more toxic to human beings, so as the cloud drifted, it became more lethal.
Not much is known about the content of the debris that reached Brooklyn because nobody ever collected samples there. However, Dr. Tucker Woods was running the emergency room of Long Island College Hospital on September 11 when he got a huge influx of respiratory cases. “I personally this year have seen a real increase in asthma complaints and chronic bronchitis,” Woods says.
Dr. Walfred Leon conducted a study of police officers who worked at Ground Zero and experienced respiratory problems. Although most of them had been young, healthy adults, many got severe respiratory problems that required hospitalization. “We’ve never encountered anything like this before in medicine,” Leon says. He thinks World Trade Center Cough may be a new disease.
WTC Cough is characterized by reduced lung capacity and a hyper-reactivity of the airways to all particles, bacteria and viruses that are inhaled. The patient has a dry, nonproductive cough that leaves him gasping for air. Their airways recoil from microscopic foreign objects, becoming tightly constricted.
At first, researchers feared there would be many future cases of asbestosis, where exposure to asbestos causes incurable lung cancer decades later (the actor Steve McQueen died from this). However, there was little asbestos in the twin towers because the city health department stopped its use in the World Trade Center construction during an early stage, and less toxic substances were used for insulation on all the upper floors.
Dr. Sonia Buist, of Oregon Health Sciences, has spent years studying the impact of the 1980 eruption of the Mt. St. Helens volcano on the lungs of loggers who worked on the mountain for half a decade afterwards. The ash they inhaled, like the World Trade Center debris, was very high in natural volcanic ground glass about the same size as the WTC dust samples.
While the loggers Buist studied experienced lung irritation, most of them eventually regained full health when the particles were finally cleared from their lungs. The human lung has a mechanism called the “mucous escalator,” in which irritating particles trigger an immune response, causing mucous to surround the particles, which are then coughed up. But Buist says glass fibers coated with chemicals are harder for the mucous escalator to clear from the lungs. Lioy’s electron microscope studies showed that all glass fibers from Ground Zero were chemically coated with human cell fragments, lead or fungi.
“There is no precedent for this,” says Wilkenfeld. “This is a new experience for all of us, and we are learning as we go along.”
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