9/11 Dust Sickens New York Firefighters, Residents

NEW YORK, New York, September 10, 2002 (ENS) - More than 90 percent of the New York City Fire Department rescue workers who responded to the collapse of the World Trade Center last September 11 have developed a severe cough," Dr. David Prezant of the New York City Fire Department told journalists Monday during a telebriefing organized by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Some 12,100 firefighters and medical services personnel were exposed to the dust, smoke and heat of the burning towers during the first week, and many were re-exposed in the following weeks. Some are coughing so badly that they have had to take four weeks or more of medical leave for a new condition that health officials are calling "the WTC related cough."

World Trade Center

The World Trade Center towers in New York City, shortly after the buildings were struck by two hijacked planes, September 11, 2001 (Photo © Bill Halliwell)

On that day one year ago, 2801 people died as two hijacked airplanes struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Over 343 New York City Fire Department (FDNY) rescue workers died during the collapse - 341 were firefighters and two were paramedics. Over the next 24 hours, another 240 FDNY rescue workers, firefighters and paramedics, sought emergency medical treatment.

"I think that we're never going to know the full scale of what firefighters were exposed to on that day," said Dr. Prezant.

Twenty-three New York City police officers were killed in the course of their duties related to the terrorist attacks. No figures on contamination related illnesses suffered by police personnel are immediately available.

Most environmental monitoring began on September 18, a full week after the event. But "the clear thing that every person knows," said the FDNY physician, "is that they were exposed to a massive dust cloud. There is visual evidence for that. And that massive dust cloud includes a respirable airborne particulate matter."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)says the dust was composed mainly of ground up construction materials, including concrete, glass, fiberglass and some asbestos.


Rescue workers stand by the antenna formerly atop the World Trade Center, now an impromptu flagpole (Photo by Mike Rieger courtesy FEMA)
Analysis of the Ground Zero air by the University of California Davis DELTA Group, an association of aerosol scientists at several universities and national laboratories, found unprecedented levels of mass and very fine particles containing sulfur, vanadium, nickel, lead and mercury, as well as silicon aerosols produced by the vaporization of soil and glass.

Dr. Prezant said, "Even if that respirable airborne particulate matter does not include a single chemical, it is incredibly toxic at that level of exposure. There are voluminous data in the literature saying that exposure to airborne particulates may induce increasing rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, emphysema, and heart disease."

Many firefighters worked at the disaster scene without any respiratory protection at all. As standard equipment, they are issued what Dr. Prezand called "the best respirator on the Planet Earth," the Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). Designed to fight fires, the air tank is heavy and contains only enough air for 15 minutes. In the rescue operation environment of the World Trade Center, the heavy tanks were discarded when they ran out of air.

"Our firefighters went in with the best respirator and the best intention for protection, but then did not have any respirator because of the resulting lack of ability to use the SCBA," Dr. Prezant said.


Firefighters with paper masks at Ground Zero. September 15, 2001 (Two photos by Andrea Booher courtesy FEMA)
The EPA says that it and other federal agencies made thousands of respirators and other protective gear available to workers at the scene.

But Dr. Prezant says it took days to get them the half-face T100 respirators certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "During that time they tried to use hardware, sawdust masks," said Dr. Prezand, "but even that was of very limited value."

As a result, during the six months following September 11, 332 firefighters and one ambulance worker developed WTC related coughs, defined as being severe enough to require at least four weeks of medical leave.

These people suffer from both upper and lower aerodigestive tract irritation, including sinusitis, gastro-esophageal acid reflux, and asthma. Fifty-two percent have shown only partial improvement and remain on either medical leave, light duty, or are filing for retirement injury/disability evaluations, the fire department physician said. The other 48 percent, with treatment, have recovered and have returned to full firefighting duty.

"We expect that over 500 firefighters will ultimately file and probably qualify for retirement injury/disability on the basis of WTC cough and other respiratory related problems," Dr. Prevant said, a "dramatic" increase from prior numbers.

Residents and office workers in buildings near Ground Zero were also exposed to the polluted dust cloud and continuing smoke and dust from the collapsed towers, which smouldered for weeks.

Ground Zero

Firefighters battle smouldering fires at Ground Zero September 19, 2001
Dr. Rachel Kramer of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, says that her agency, in collaboration with the CDC, conducted a community needs assessment in Lower Manhattan six weeks after the attacks that found hundreds of residents were still feeling ill.

Between October 25 and November 2, a door-to-door survey was conducted in three residential neighborhoods covering about 50 percent of the Lower Manhattan residential population.

On September 11, 2001, an estimated 75 percent of the households were evacuated from their homes following the attacks. During the survey six weeks later, 66 percent of residents in the 1,400 households surveyed reported nose or throat irritations, half had eye irritation or infection, 47 percent were coughing.

About 60 percent of the population reported receiving information about proper cleaning procedures, yet only 45 percent reported that their apartments had been cleaned according to the recommended method.

As of June 3, the EPA offered Lower Manhattan residents cleaning and/or testing of their homes. On August 16, the EPA started the scheduling of testing for airborne asbestos in 100 residences in lower Manhattan.

Manhattan residents living below Canal, Allen and Pike Streets have until October 3 to ask to have their homes cleaned and tested for airborne asbestos by certified asbestos contractors, or they may ask for testing alone under EPA's Lower Manhattan Dust Cleanup Program.

Chinatown lies close to the World Trade Center, and residents experienced heightened rates of asthma after the terrorist attacks, suggests a survey conducted by the Chinese Progressive Association, a nonprofit community group. The survey, reported in the September 4 issue of the "Downtown Express" newspaper, was conducted by volunteers who received an orientation on air pollution in Chinatown.

They surveyed 580 households with 2,040 residents and found that about half the new cases of asthma reported were diagnosed during the first eight months of 2001, and half during the fall of 2001 and spring of 2002. Half the cases occurred in children under 17.


Interpreter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) explains assistance options to Chinatown residents. November 7, 2001 (Photo courtesy FEMA)
The survey found that the highest concentration of asthma was in northern Chinatown, but residents there are outside the boundary to receive the free EPA testing and cleaning of asbestos and contaminated dust.

Households north of Canal Street are not eligible for the EPA services, although many affected residents live there, said Mae Lee, Chinese Progressive Association's executive director. "If you live south of Canal, you're eligible to get free testing," she said. "If you live north of the boundary, you're not."

Across the East River, Brooklyn was covered with dust and debris from the disaster, but their borough is being left out of testing and cleanup programs, say New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez and New York Council Member David Yassky and other Brooklyn elected officials.

On September 4, they decried the EPA's existing post September 11 testing and cleanup programs and insisted that the agency include Brooklyn in its efforts. Despite earlier complaints by elected officials and residents that the cloud of pollution not only passed over, but settled on Brooklyn's parks, streets, houses, businesses and citizens, the EPA has failed to extend its cleanup and testing efforts to the borough, the officials say.

NASA photos taken immediately following the attack and collapse of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers and released on August 28, show in detail the heavy concentration of smoke and debris from the site traveling across the East River and over Brooklyn.

In response, Yassky and Velazquez drafted a letter last week to EPA Administrator Christine Whitman outlining their concerns. "We all watched the cloud of debris cross the river and descend on our neighborhoods in Brooklyn," Yassky said.

Ground Zero

Still image taken from video sent from the International Space Station as it flew over New York September 11, 2001 at an altitude of 250 miles. It shows the smoke plume from Ground Zero blowing across Brooklyn. (Photo by Commander Frank Culbertson courtesy NASA)
"Now, one year later, we have proof to show the federal government that we need its help just as much as Manhattan. My constituents are worried, with good reason, that their own health and the health of their families and neighbors have been in jeopardy since the tragedy. They are worried that the government isn't doing anything about it. So am I."

"On September 11, I watched debris fall on Carroll Gardens, while the dust cloud swept through Brooklyn," Congresswoman Velázquez said.

"Local, state and federal agencies have monitored the health of residents and recovery workers at and near Ground Zero. The same should have been done for Brooklyn.

"The NASA pictures and information from local health officials paint a very clear picture of what we already suspected - the toxic cloud of debris wasn't confined to Lower Manhattan but was carried over to Brooklyn," the Brooklyn officials wrote to Whitman. "It is time for the EPA to acknowledge they underestimated the environmental impact on our borough and take action immediately."

The EPA acknowledges that its greatest concern is "the potential long term health effects resulting from the release of a wide range of toxic contaminants."

The agency says that it began monitoring the smoke plume on September 11, 2001 and has since taken and analyzed nearly 20,000 samples of air, dust and water in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island and New Jersey. "All of this testing, as well as the sampling results from other federal, state and local agencies, shows that the risk for long term health effects is very low. This is reinforced by independent assessments conducted by area doctors, researchers and health professionals."

Cleaning or testing is available by logging on to the EPA's World Trade Center website at: http://www.epa.gov/wtc/ or by calling the EPA toll-free hotline at 1-877-796-5471.