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World Trade Center – Health Risks From Air Pollution After 9-11
Between 9/11 and Christmas 2001, the EPA conducted more than 7,500 air quality tests at the sites where the Twin Towers once stood, looking for a wide range of carcinogens and other compounds such as dioxin, lead and asbestos. Government agencies were trying to determine whether airborne particles and gas-phase compounds created by the disintegration and burning of 220 floors of building materials, office furniture, equipment and jet fuel posed any significant long-term health risks to people who had been in the area since the attacks.
Tests indicate that a unique microclimate of environmental contaminants has been created at the site, unlike any previously known. Tests showed that the air contained cement dust, fiberglass, asbestos, various polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxin, lead, mercury and volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene and formaldehyde.
For the most part, air concentrations were within regulatory limits, although testing did not begin until the day after the towers collapsed, and it is certainly fair to assume that the first 24 hours were responsible for the highest concentrations of many of the toxic compounds now known. be generated. Tests after the attack showed that only 29 of 3,500 tests for asbestos exceeded federal thresholds. EPA criteria for dioxin were briefly exceeded during the first few weeks. By mid-December, however, government officials were still measuring benzene concentrations 400 times higher than the level allowed for a year of continuous exposure.
Most health officials at the time officially stated that there was no significant threat to workers and residents at ground zero. These statements are now historically considered to be misleading or outright false. Even then, reports of sore throats, coughs, asthma, cold-like symptoms, breathing problems, bronchitis, sinusitis, and reduced lung capacity continued to be reported, supporting the idea by many that a unique mixture of contaminants may have reacted. cause unpredictable health problems in unknown ways. In addition, there was the possibility that brief exposure of pregnant women to chemicals or heavy metals could compromise the development of their unborn babies. As a result, women who were pregnant at the time of the attack were enrolled in studies that spanned several years. We now know from multiple studies that included work from the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, or CCCEH, that the effects included shortened gestation periods, lower birth weights, genetic damage and increased carcinogenic risks.
Although most organic compounds dissipate quickly due to their high vapor pressure, improper cleanup procedures may have exacerbated contamination problems by stirring up toxic particles that settled from the air. The main weapon against recirculating contaminants was water – keep everything as wet as possible during cleaning activities. In addition, the use of particulate filters was to be mandatory for all vacuum operations. Heating and air conditioning systems that have been infiltrated by dust generated from the site should be thoroughly cleaned and new filters installed before restarting. Ordinary fiberglass filters were originally replaced with more expensive high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in all heating and air conditioning systems that could tolerate the reduced airflow until cleaning activities inside and outside buildings were completed. Once the contaminants were gone, it was thought safe to return to normal filters.
Mount Sinai Medical Center’s ongoing medical monitoring program, which treated more than 26,000 people exposed to WTC fallout, found that exposure to the toxic dust cocktails from the collapse of the Twin Towers caused persistent illnesses such as asthma, reactive airway disease, and shortness of breath. The monitoring program reexamined more than 3,160 respondents between 2004 and 2007 and found that more than 24% had abnormal lung function.
Lingering health issues related to the WTC attacks became the focus of the Daily News Editorial Board’s 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning “9/11: The Forgotten Victims.” As a direct result of this series, the Department of Health and Human Services committed $75 million to monitor and provide health care to 9/11 volunteers, becoming the first federal funds dedicated to 9/11 health issues.
The medical legacy of the collapse of the Twins will far outlast any economic damage to the country, as people who did not die during or soon after the attack will carry the biological damage for the rest of their shortened lives. It is important to remain committed to those who gave so willingly during the crisis.
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