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Asbestos dust poses threat to rescue crews
By Gareth Cook and Tatsha Robertson, Globe Staff, 9/14/2001
The dust near the blast contains levels of asbestos up to four times the safe level, placing unprotected emergency workers at risk of disease, according to a Bonnie Bellow, the director of communications for the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency that monitors New York and New Jersey.
As the burnt-rubber smell spread across Manhattan and nearby New Jersey, fears spread that the entire population was receiving a dose of dangerous asbestos and other chemicals.
But Bellow and other officials rushed yesterday to dispel rumors that the plume, which was visible from space, constituted a new health emergency, saying that the danger was confined to those working right at the scene.
''Outside of ground zero, we have not found elevated levels of anything that would cause a problem,'' said EPA head Christie Whitman.
When the buildings burned and collapsed, they sent into the air a cloud of very fine particles of all kinds of materials. These particles include minuscule pieces of metal and plastic, and officials said they can pose a threat to the elderly, and those with asthma or other lung problems.
Of four dust samples taken so far, Bellow said, one was composed of about 4 percent asbestos - far higher than the 1 percent threshhold considered safe. Three other samples showed asbestos at safe levels.
Abnormal levels of asbestos, lead, or other hazardous chemicals have not been detected in the air away from the blast site, Bellow said.
The real danger lies at the scene, where cranes and bulldozers are constantly kicking up dust. Asbestos exposure can cause lung cancer and a rare but virtually untreatable form of cancer called mesothelioma, according to Michael Huncharek, a specialist on asbestos who is an oncologist with the Marshfield Clinic Cancer Center in Marshfield, Wis.
Asbestos gets into the lungs, he explained, causing damage and triggering cancers many years, even decades, later. It is insidious, he said, because emergency workers could bring it into their homes, placing their families at risk.
Huncharek and other doctors have documented cases in which the spouses of workers who used asbestos have died from mesothelioma.
The EPA has warned rescue workers to change their clothes before returning home. It has also warned them to use ventilators because surgical masks will not offer adequate protection from asbestos particles.
When the World Trade Center was being built in the early 1970s, asbestos was initially used to fireproof parts of the buildings, before objections forced the builders to switch to less hazardous materials, Newsday reported yesterday.
With thousands of bodies and parts of bodies thought to be beneath the rubble, workers from the Centers for Disease Control will be testing the air and water for disease. But health workers said they do not expect to find a threat.
''It is important to remember that human remains from explosions and building collapses do not pose a risk of disease epidemics,'' said the CDC in a written statement. ''Your priority is to maintain the dignity of the deceased.''
Globe Staff member Mac Daniel provided additional reporting from Jersey City.
This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 9/14/2001.