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Air Quality Seems Safe at Disaster Site

Low asbestos levels found at World Trade Center

TUESDAY, Sept. 18, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- A week after the World Trade Center disaster, as residences and businesses in the area slowly reopen, air and water quality appear to be safe, reports the New York City Department of Health.

Although workers at the site still are equipped with masks, goggles and protective clothing against dust and contaminated air, ongoing tests show very low levels of asbestos in the air. The department reported yesterday that the public's risk for short- or long-term ill health effects is very low.

Near the site, people are finding it easier to breathe.

"People are walking around without masks, and I didn't feel uncomfortable myself," says New York City realtor Ed Riguardi, who was downtown yesterday to inspect the four office buildings his company, Colliers ABR, manages in the Wall Street area.

"While wearing a good mask is uncomfortable and makes it more work to breathe, those not wearing masks will probably have a higher risk for [dust and airborne particles]," says Morton Lippmann, director of the Human Exposure Program at the New York University School of Medicine's department of environmental medicine.

The health department reports that the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have been at the disaster site regularly, testing the air and water for contamination since the terrorist attacks at the twin towers last Tuesday filled the sky with smoke, dust and debris.

Tests have found that asbestos levels at the site are lower than the 6 percent considered safe by the health department for asbestos containment material (ACM) in the air. While the results of water quality tests at ground zero, the center of the attack, are still being monitored, the city reports that water quality north of the site is within acceptable limits.

Last week was a different story. Lippmann reported billows of smoke and fire poured from the towers, and layers of dust from the imploded buildings darkened the sky, making it hard to see, let alone breathe. He reported the smoke contained a high content of gypsum from the wallboard used in construction, which caused temporary eye irritation, as well as acrid fumes from the planes' jet fuel.

Now, he says, "We are fortunate that there is good background air" which has improved the air quality as the fires and smoke from the attack have quieted. The pile still smolders, though, as rescue teams lift the debris and release oxygen. More than 5,400 people are feared dead, most still buried under the rubble.

But there is no threat to public health from decomposing human remains, says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

As people are allowed to return to their homes and businesses in the affected area, health officials are urging caution. While building owners are responsible to have their buildings inspected and approved for re-entry before employees return to work, residents returning to their abandoned apartments could face hazards like leaking gas lines, broken glass and lots and lots of dust.

What To Do

The city has issued guidelines for cleaning homes that include: removing dust by wetting and wiping it away with damp rags and mops; avoiding sweeping or other outdoor maintenance; keeping windows closed; setting the air conditioner to recirculate (closed vents), and cleaning or changing air filters regularly and using air purifiers to reduce indoor dust levels from the air.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which also has dispatched monitors to the Trade Center site, has fact sheets on asbestos and dust and debris.

To learn about the health risks of air pollution, go to the EPA, which also can help you find out about your own town's air quality.

SOURCES: Interviews with Ed Riguardi, co-chairman, Colliers ABR, New York City, Morton Lippmann, Ph.D., Human Exposure and Health Effects Program Director, Department of Environmental Medicine, New York University School of Medicine, New York City; New York City Department of Health release
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