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September 13, 2001
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West Street
The view south on New York's West Street was covered with debris and white dust in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. (David Karp/AP Photo)
Fouled Air?
Health Officials Stress Caution,
But Say Measured Levels Safe

By Michael S. James

Sept. 13 — Despite fires and a pungent odor at the wreckage of the World Trade Center, most tests for contaminants in New York's air have not triggered alarm, health officials say.

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A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman said Wednesday that EPA officials "really don't detect any real danger" in air and dust tests. And New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani echoed the sentiments this morning.

"The Health Department has done tests and at this point it is not a concern," Giuliani said. "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."

Still, he said, people in lower Manhattan were feeling the effects of all the dust and debris spawned by the terrorist attack.

"The accumulation of it, for people that are down there, can become very, very irritating," he added. "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."

Low Asbestos Levels; One Anomaly

The EPA continues to test air and dust around the attack site. Results released today on samples collected Wednesday showed little or no asbestos in dust at the site or in air downwind of the attack, an EPA official said.

Pre-attack newspaper reports and other 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," said Bonnie Bellows, an EPA spokeswoman. "We expect to find some asbestos in a building of this generation."

Analysis of earlier air samples taken downwind of the attack site in Brooklyn on Tuesday also showed lead, asbestos and volatile organic compounds to be undetectable or at low levels of concern. 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, according to the EPA.

In addition, three dust samples collected Tuesday at the collapse site and others collected Wednesday showed low or nondetectable levels of asbestos.

‘Don’t Be Stupid’ — Protect Yourself

However, one dust sample collected Tuesday showed an elevated level of asbestos, so the EPA is recommending wetting down debris to prevent dissipation of dust into the air. Officials add that workers stirring up ash and debris should wear respiratory masks and protective gear.

It's "one of those cases of 'don't be stupid,'" EPA spokeswoman Tina Kreisher said. "If there's a chance, why not put on the mask?"

ABCNEWS Medical Editor Dr. Timothy Johnson said today on Good Morning America that the air and dust measurements, the odor and evident dust in the air indicate that very young children, the elderly and people with asthma should stay away from the attack area, and workers should take precautions.

"I see people walking around without masks and I think that is foolhardy," Johnson said.

Multiple Dangers

Asbestos is not the only potential hazard.

Dr. George Leikauf, professor of environmental health and pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, noted the impact of 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 possible 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.

Dangers of Asbestos

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 won't be able to breathe properly.

"The main risk is exposure to asbestos over long periods of time," Bellows said. "It takes years of exposure in an occupation, and its takes many years before the onset of any kind of disease."

Brooke Mossman, a pathology professor at the University of Vermont Medical School, said 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 said.

ABCNEWS' Melanie Axelrod, Amy Malick, Aditya Raval and Luis Martinez contributed to this report.


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