World Trade Center Debris May Pose Health Risks for Rescue Teams, Public
In the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center last Tuesday, "dust, debris and shards of razor-sharp metal" may pose health risks for those "still alive in the ruins" and rescue teams "combing through the debris," the New York Times News Service/Baltimore Sun reports (New York Times News Service/Baltimore Sun, 9/16). The following describes risks associated with specific debris:
- Dust: The "thick clouds of dust and smoke" over Manhattan may "cause minor health problems" for those with existing medical conditions. However, according to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Whitman, "There's no reason to be concerned." The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the "thick, grayish dust" that settled over a 10-mile radius from the World Trade Center contained "relatively harmless" lime and silica. Although the dust may contain asbestos, only one of two dozen air samples taken in the area had asbestos levels higher than the "maximum standard" set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Flam/Bauers, Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/17). The EPA has found "variable asbestos levels" in debris and dust on the ground but reports that the finding poses "no significant risk" to the public. The EPA and OSHA will still monitor levels of asbestos in the area, and over the weekend, the EPA moved 16 vacuum trucks to the area to remove dust and debris (OSHA release, 9/14). Some also raised concerns that smoke from plastics and "nylon-type materials" may have contained toxic gasses, but the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the amounts "probably are too small" to pose health risks. However, Joe Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, an environmental advocacy group, warned that members of rescue teams, "exposed to far more airborne material" than the public, should use protective masks.
- Disease: Health experts also said concerns that thousands of "decaying bodies or parts of bodies" in the debris could lead to "serious diseases" such as cholera and dysentery are "unfounded," pointing out that the diseases only spread through the water supply (Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/17). "I don't think it's an urgent public health issue," New York City Public Health Commissioner Neal Cohen said, but he added that "longer range we have to look at water as a potential source for health concerns" (Garrett et al., Newsday, 9/15). Colleen Terriff, an assistant professor of pharmacy practice at Washington State University, said that blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C pose a "real" but likely "minimal" concern. According to Dr. David Cone, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Yale University School of Medicine, "little can be done" to protect rescue teams and the public from diseases that "arise because of the large number of bodies trapped in the rubble" (New York Times/Baltimore Sun, 9/15). Dr. Patrick Meehan, director of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, said that members of rescue teams should wear latex gloves, goggles and hepafilter masks. Last Friday, the CDC sent 34 Epidemic Intelligence Service officers to help track disease trends in New York City. They have monitored hospitals in the city for "unusual disease trends."
- Radiation: New York City Health Associate Commissioner Kelly McKinney said that radiation also may represent a "potentially serious problem." She said that radiation devices, such as X-ray machines and CT scans, may have burned in the attack. However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found "nothing worrisome" when the agency conducted radiation studies in the area (Newsday, 9/15).