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Is Ground Zero Safe?

New study suggests more asbestos at disaster site than previously revealed. By David France
/ Source: Newsweek Web Exclusive

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 concentrations.”

“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.”

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.

Still, as Joel Shufro, executive director at the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, points out, “There is no safe exposure to asbestos.”

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.

The EPA 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.