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Ground Zero Workers Faced Health Risk from Toxic Gases, Study Finds

Posted - Sep. 10, 2003 at 3:20 p.m.



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Sep. 10--The smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center exposed thousands of rescue and clean-up workers to a steady high dose of toxic gases for as long as six weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, says a UC Davis study planned for release in New York City today.

The study's lead scientist compares the scenario to working atop a smokestack of a gargantuan municipal waste incinerator with no pollution controls.

"The people working on the pile were getting a full load of this all the time, week after week," said Thomas Cahill, whose team of air-quality experts took more than 8,000 air samples from a rooftop near Ground Zero.

"I use the word 'brutal," " Cahill said.

Officials at the University of California, Davis, call the investigation the most extensive analysis yet of the pollution from the trade center wreckage. The study also explains how such dangerous pollutants could have been manufactured at the blast site for weeks after the huge dust clouds had settled.

Many of the estimated 40,000 workers directly involved in the rescue, recovery and cleanup worked without respirators. They found them impractical for communicating and working in long stretches, a federal investigation found.

The Mount Sinai School of Medicine reported in January that 78 percent of the more than 3,500 workers it examined had suffered lung ailments, and 88 percent of them experienced ear, nose and throat problems in the months following the attacks.

Health experts say they can only guess at the possible long-term health outcomes of workers exposed to such an unprecedented event. The collapse of the 110-story twin towers killed 2,792 people and resulted in the release of toxic gases and particles in volumes and types never before observed.

Darren Taylor, 36, a Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District captain who worked on the rescue effort for 10 days, said he and many of his fellow firefighters have no regrets.

"We would all do it again, knowing what we do today," Taylor said.

He said they have not dwelled on the long-term health consequences.

"I'd rather not know all the gory details and have to worry about it for the next 20-plus years," Taylor said.

The UC Davis study confirms its preliminary findings released in February 2002 and offers deeper explanation for the unusual pollution they found.

The findings, now peer-reviewed and scheduled for publication in a scientific journal, already have inflamed a growing controversy over the federal Environmental Protection Agency's response to the collapse.

In an investigation first reported by The Bee in March, the EPA's inspector general concluded that the agency's former administrator, Christie Whitman, did not have the data to support her Sept. 18, 2001, announcement that the air in Lower Manhattan was "safe to breathe."

Whitman, who left the agency in June, said recently she stands by her statement.

The acting EPA administrator, Marianne Lamont Horinko, also defended the agency's reassurances to the public.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., has vowed to block Senate action on President Bush's nomination of Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt to lead the EPA until White House officials provide a thorough accounting of their role in the editing of the EPA's press releases.

According to the inspector general's report, the president's Council on Environmental Quality persuaded the EPA to minimize its assessment of the dangers posed by airborne particles from the skyscrapers' collapse.

Cahill, one of several scientists interviewed for the report, told the investigators his air monitoring results indicated that the air at the blast site was dangerous not only in days following the collapse, but for weeks thereafter.

"The EPA rounded up the usual (pollution) suspects in what was a highly unusual event ... and reasoned that if the air samples met standards, the air was safe," Cahill said in a recent interview with The Bee.

"But this was a different kind of pollution, different aerosols which turned out to be quite a bit more dangerous than those the EPA uses to set their standards," he said.

The American Chemical Society invited Cahill to present his study today at the society's annual conference in New York City and at a press conference.

Cahill, an international authority on airborne particles, said his samples contain particles as much as 10 times smaller than any the EPA and its contractors are capable of measuring. They were collected Oct. 2 through late December 2001 from UCD monitors a mile from the blast site.

The study attempts to counter scientific criticism of the preliminary findings that some of the types and volumes of pollutants found likely were blown in from Midwest power plants or area industries.

George Thurston, an associate professor at the New York University School of Medicine, said Tuesday that the UCD study still lacks sufficient data and provides weak support for its conclusion that the dangerous pollutants came from the blast site.

"The have oversubscribed the pollution to the World Trade Center site," Thurston said. "A lot of the reason the pollution was high on the days they measured was because of the regional pollution."

Normally, building fires do not produce aerosols of nickel, lead and other metal particles picked up by UCD's monitors. Rather, the toxic metals end up in the ash.

But the study says the trade center wreckage was no ordinary fire and that its emissions resembled those from municipal waste incinerators in many ways.

Like an incinerator, the super-heated trade-center rubble contained enormous amounts of paper and plastics that emitted chlorine gas, which liberated the dangerous metal particles.

This process continued through mid-December as thousands of demolition and clearance workers toiled at the site.

"It's as though these poor guys were working there for six weeks at the top of a stack of a major municipal incinerator," Cahill said.

Health studies are under way to follow the physical conditions of many of these workers through their lifetime.

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To see more of The Sacramento Bee, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.sacbee.com

(c) 2003, The Sacramento Bee, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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