5 - In the weeks since the World Trade Center was attacked, evidence is
mounting that large quantities of asbestos were showered down on lower
Manhattan. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has 16
stationary air-quality reading stations throughout ground zero and has
been studying the debris regularly, has said that 34 dust samples (out
of 128 studied) and a handful of air readings have been positive for
significant asbestos. But a new study by independent researchers
suggests even more asbestos was released than those EPA tests have
revealed—and in a potentially more dangerous form, NEWSWEEK has learned.
THE STUDY, BY THE Virginia firm HP Environmental, found that the force
of the explosions apparently shattered the asbestos into fibers so
small that they evade the EPA’s ordinary testing methods. The EPA tests
for asbestos particles greater than a half micron in size, a
spokeswoman says. But the study concluded that there is such an
overwhelming concentration of those ultrasmall particles that many are
being missed by standard microscopy techniques. “This stuff was just
crushed, just pulverized,” says lead author Hugh Granger. “As it turns
out, when we now measure and look for these very small fibers in the
air and buildings, we find them, and we find them in uniquely elevated
“I find this very
troublesome,” says Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of environmental and
occupational medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan
and a leading expert on asbestos toxicity. “The smaller the particle,
the more easily it can be aerosolized. And the easier job that it has
penetrating right down into the very depths of the lungs.”
an HP Environmental principal, says he found asbestos within several
blocks of ground zero, including inside closed and undamaged offices
nearby and as high up as 36 stories.
The study was spearheaded by HP Environmental, which oversaw emergency
toxicology assessments after the 1993 attack at the trade center and,
more recently, was hired by one of the general contractors overseeing
ground-zero cleanup to determine health hazards for its employees.
Granger, an HP Environmental principal, says he found asbestos within
several blocks of ground zero, including inside closed and undamaged
offices nearby and as high up as 36 stories. The smaller fibers pose a
greater challenge for abatement, he says, because they are easily
kicked up into the air. “It’s hard to control them, hard to eliminate
them. Once they get airborne they want to stay airborne. Once they’re
in buildings, we … need to start focusing on precautions.”
The EPA hasn’t seen the report and wouldn’t comment, and calls to city
and state health officials were not immediately answered. Several
participants at a recent operational meeting of ground-zero workers say
the findings were part of a presentation by members of the contracting
company, which asked to remain anonymous.
The health implications of these findings are sure to be disputed. It
is generally accepted that short-term exposure is not enough to cause
the worst asbestos-related diseases, including asbestosis (chronic lung
scarring), lung cancer, or mesotheloma, a rare cancer of the lung
lining. In addition, experts say, it is the size and shape of asbestos
fibers—not any chemical compound found in them—that causes disease.
Their long, pine-needle shape allows them to lodge in lung pockets,
causing scarring that eventually destroys the tissue. The crushed
fibers Granger and his team found have this same needle-shape.
But there is some dispute about whether the smaller fibers are more or
less dangerous. A study of workers in South Carolina who were exposed
to broken and fragmented asbestos fibers, perhaps like those at the
World Trade Center, showed that “gram for gram, the risk for cancer was
many times greater than any other asbestos exposure circumstance ever
seen,” says Landrigan. But other experts contend just the opposite,
what researchers call “the Stanton hypothesis,” which posits that
shorter fibers are less irritating and more easily coughed out of
lungs, says Max Costa, chairman of environmental medicine at New York
University School of Medicine.
Joel Shufro, executive director at the New York Committee for
Occupational Safety and Health, points out, “There is no safe exposure
One indication of how
contentious these issues are came when Granger et al. tried to publish
their findings on the Web site of the American Industrial Hygiene
Association, which has become something of a clearinghouse for
information related to the cleanup efforts. After a hasty review among
colleagues, the AIHA posted the paper and a press release last
Wednesday, only to remove it a few hours later. At first the authors
were told a “Gremlin in the Web site” was the reason it simply
vanished, but now a staffer says the paper will be subjected to a more
rigorous peer-review process before being made public, a process that
could take weeks or months. “Someone in our office got a little too
anxious, I think, to put this data out,” is how AIHA president Henry
Lick explains the turnaround.
says that among its asbestos findings, most are relatively low—but
still up to three times the acceptable limit. But a new asbestos hazard
has recently become apparent. According to the EPA, air samples taken
from the southwest perimeter of ground zero continue to show asbestos
in the air. This may be owing to a secondary exposure problem:
landlords sweeping off their windowsills and roofs. “We are trying to
figure out where this is coming from,” says the spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of workers have returned to their offices
in the Financial District and 12,000 of the 20,000 displaced residents
are now back in their homes, community leaders have said. This has
occupational-health experts increasingly worried. Dr. Alan Fein, chief
of pulmonary and critical-care medicine at North Shore-Long Island
Jewish Health System, has already treated five patients with what he
calls “World Trade Center syndrome,” respiratory distress stemming from
relatively brief exposures of a day or two near the collapsed
buildings. And he expects there will be more. “We probably will find
out a lot more about the health aspects of asbestos from this event,
unfortunately,” he says.
© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.
© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.