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Cloud from Collapsed Towers Causes Concern

Long-term health effects feared in lingering smoke

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 12, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Even as acrid smoke continues to drift from the rubble of the World Trade Center, authorities are starting to take steps to assess its long-term health effects on New York residents and the rescue workers who spent long hours immersed in it.

Those effects depend on the composition of the billowing clouds that were sent up yesterday as the Center's twin towers burst into flame and collapsed from the impact of two hijacked commercial jetliners, says Morton Lippmann, director of the human exposure program in New York University School of Medicine's department of environmental medicine. In addition, a plane that hit the Pentagon caused a separate fire that continued into today, even as employees were returning to work.

"Right now we don't have much of an idea of that chemical composition," Lippmann says. "The National Toxicology Program, an arm of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences [NIEHS], has called us about a possible study of the toxicity of the dust in the air. We're thinking about how we might do it."

The smoke contained a high content of gypsum, from the wallboard used in construction, Lippmann says. There have been a lot of complaints about eye irritation, which reflects a high gypsum content in the smoke but does not usually indicate harmful long-term effects.

"We suspect there might be some asbestos from insulation, but we don't know that for sure," he says. "There might be some toxic metals, but right now that is pure speculation."

Warren White, a senior research associate at the Washington University Center for Air Pollution Impact and Trend Analysis in St. Louis, says he was "impressed by the reports of two or three inches of ash in the street. You saw people with masks, like in the old days of London smog. Those very heavy conditions have consequences if people already have compromised respiratory systems. People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma should avoid those conditions."

White sees a comparison with the smoke from the wildfires that have affected large areas of the United States recently.

"Out West, people live with the heavy ash and smoke from the areas around forest fires," he says. "But for people with healthy respiratory systems, I am not aware of any documented large-scale health effects of things like forest fires."

But one big difference, Lippmann adds, is that the World Trade Center smoke did not come primarily from wood. And in addition to the gypsum and concrete dust from the buildings' structure, the smoke also contained a lot of diesel smoke from the planes' fuel, he says.

The hijackers had targeted only long-range aircraft that were fully loaded with fuel. "They didn't need a bomb because they had all that fuel," Lippmann says.

Residents of Manhattan reported a chemical smell in the air today, which appears to have been stronger than yesterday.

NYU's environmental research center is equipped with a battery of toxicity tests that can be used to determine the poisonous qualities of the World Trade Center smoke by analyzing dust from the debris, Lippmann says.

Those tests could indicate what hazards are to be expected for the firefighters, police, emergency workers and others who experienced strong exposure to the smoke in long hours on or near the site of the disaster.

"What NIEHS can do now is to know what population should be followed carefully and what guidance should be given," Lippmann adds. "Some of this material stays in the body for a long time."

What To Do

Any prolonged exposure to heavy smoke, particularly by someone with a respiratory condition, calls for a medical consultation.

A primer on the effects of polluted air is offered by the American Academy of Family Physicians or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Interviews with Morton Lippmann, Ph.D, director, human exposure program, department of environmental medicine, New York University School of Medicine; Warren White, Ph.D, senior research associate, Washington University Center for Air Pollution Impact and Trend Analysis
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