Already a Bloomberg.com user?
Sign in with the same account.
For many New Yorkers, it couldn't be avoided -- the hideous, throat-scorching smoke pouring out of ground zero that made parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn feel like a circle in Dante's hell. Some strapped on masks to keep from gagging on the fumes. Others, hit for days by the gray ash that blew over the boroughs, couldn't help but suck the mysterious flakes in. For them, the question has been nagging: Is there a secondary, environmental danger lurking from Terrible Tuesday?
With the search-and-rescue mission still under way, the public-health concerns are not at the forefront -- yet. But as that effort gives way to demolition and cleanup, experts say that could soon change. Within a matter of minutes on Sept. 11, one of the most valuable swaths of real estate in the world was erupting into a potential environmental disaster.
For years, Europeans have banned the toxic, carcinogenic building and office products that fill most American workplaces. The twin towers were loaded with millions of items -- office furniture, computer circuit boards, plastic garbage cans, copy machines -- that were never meant to be burned. The resulting volcano of hazardous waste spewed carcinogenic chemicals, vaporized organic compounds, and highly dangerous combustible gases (see table).
LAX STANDARDS? The federal Environmental Protection Agency began testing the area around the World Trade Center and Brooklyn the day of the attack to determine the extent of asbestos contamination, an early concern. The agency found some samples taken near ground zero that exceeded asbestos levels deemed safe, one of which was 4.5 times the agency's acceptable standard. But mostly, its testing shows asbestos, as well as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), PAHs (polyaromatic hydrocarbons), and heavy metals, to be at levels considered safe. In fact, the EPA, along with New York City officials, rushed to downplay the public-health threat emanating from the disaster scene.
Yet many scientists and public-health experts in New York, across the country, and in Europe counter that dust and toxic materials, not asbestos, may be the biggest threat and that the EPA's testing is, at best, inconclusive. "This is very concerning as a public-health issue," says Peter L. deFur, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's Center for Environmental Studies who also serves on an EPA advisory committee. DeFur figures that the smoke and dust contain dangers not yet being measured. He believes longer-lasting effects from some of the chemicals released could show up in testing down the road, posing an "increased risk for those living in the plume," he says.
Experts also argue that the EPA's standards, which are often heavily influenced by industry, are much too high, especially in an event of such unprecedented magnitude that flooded the environment with so many contaminants simultaneously. "This could already qualify as a Superfund site," says Richard Clapp, a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health. Indeed, EPA officials are using Superfund money for the relief effort.
"DAMAGE LATER ON." Many doctors say everyone who was in the explosions' vicinity could have potentially suffered acute exposure from the dust and smoke and could be at risk for everything from near-term respiratory ailments to, over decades, cancer. "Even at low or barely detectable levels, that's a lot of asbestos fibers and other dangerous particles going into people's lungs," says Clapp. "If those get lodged, they could do damage later on." Asbestos exposure can cause asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs that leads to breathing problems and heart failure, according to the American Lung Assn. It could also lead to lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the chest or abdomen lining.
Rescue workers who weren't wearing protective gear, those returning to work in the area, and people who smoke are also at risk in the near and long term. "We just don't know what's there," says Dr. Robin Herbert, co-director of Mount Sinai's clinic for Occupational Health. The invisible dust particles -- which paper masks don't protect against -- are the most insidious. "This could be the secondary crisis that we won't see for a long time," says Lois Gibbs, the agitator behind the cleanup at Love Canal (a Superfund site in Niagara Falls, N.Y.) who now heads the Center for Environmental Health & Justice.
Another complication: The debris-loaded trucks barreling out of the city to the disposal site at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island. Potentially toxic debris is "probably all over lower Manhattan," says Temple University civil engineering professor William Miller. "We may see some future debates about 'not in my backyard' regarding this disposal."
AWAITING ANSWERS. Environmental consultants are also worried about the small-business owners and residents who have reentered the area, mopping up and vacuuming the dust themselves. "Some of these buildings should be professionally remediated so the hazardous materials can be removed," says Robert Fox, the architect who designed the Conde Nast building in Times Square.
What exactly happens when toxin-filled office towers explode has never been studied. "The federal agencies need to do comprehensive testing to develop a safety plan," says Wayne Tusa, head of New York City-based Environmental Risk & Loss Control Inc.
Distrustful of government testing, many folks are waiting on results from independent scientists. Some, like the world-renowned German eco-toxicologist Michael Brownguard, flew to New York the week after the tragedy to undertake exhaustive testing of his own, the results of which he'll make available to the public. Others, like scientists from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park, were able to race to New York immediately. They got fresh samples from ground zero the day after the attack.
For those who fear the environmental aftermath, the results can't come soon enough.
STILL DANGEROUSThe destruction of the World Trade Center towers unleashed a host of health risks:
Asbestos: While the EPA says most test samples near the site contain less than 1% asbestos, scientists warn even that amount is too high
Toxic chemicals: Thousands of dangerous by-products resulted from all the materials that burned. These include known cancer-causing chemicals like PCBs, dioxins, and furans, which result when electrical equipment and plastics (PVCs) are burned
Dust particles: Lodged in the lungs, these substances can result in everything from respiratory diseases to cancer
Data: Wayne Tusa of New York Environmental Risk & Loss Control Inc. By Michelle Conlin in New York