LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News Volume 12 Number 4, June 2012, ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News (ISSN 1440-0561)
The Journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.
Joint Editors: Elizabeth O’Brien and Anne Roberts

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Dust hazard lessons from Twin Towers disaster

By Anne Roberts

By the time you read this, the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York will have come and gone. The legacy, for those who escaped with their lives, those who risked theirs, and anyone near the Twin Towers as they burned and collapsed, continues. This includes the health effects of having inhaled toxic smoke, being blanketed in toxic dust. If you had access to a TV or a newspaper on that, or the following days, you will have seen the images, and not forgotten them.

New Yorkers were told that the smoke and dust presented no danger, that they should clean up the dust in their own premises, and that there was no need to wear a safety mask.

In the days after September 11 the EPA and OSHA took air samples and reported that they found no excessive levels of asbestos, lead, or volatile organic compounds in the air, except in or around Ground Zero. Contrary to these reports, dust samples taken from surfaces near Ground Zero did show very high levels of asbestos. Significant quantities of asbestos had remained in the Twin Towers despite asbestos abatement programs…

In August of 2003, it was revealed that the EPA had been muzzled by the Bush administration. EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley issued a report on August 21, 2003, admitting that the reassurances were unfounded, and that the public statements of the agency were being influenced by the National Security Council, under the direction of the White House. The EPA, according to the report, had been influenced to "add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones." (9-11 Research, 2011)

Two extracts from the 2004 Sierra Club report, Air Pollution and Deception at Ground Zero, reproduced in the 9-11 article referred to above:

  • The federal government failed to change its safety assurances even after it became clear that people were getting ill, and even after a survey of federal employees of a sister agency in the same building as EPA at 290 Broadway revealed that they were suffering health impacts - a survey that, this report finds, the federal government did not release to the public at the time. It was quietly published in a journal in 2002.
  • Many Ground Zero workers did not have proper protection, especially in early weeks. This report explains that federal assurances of safety gave workers conflicting messages about the need for respirator masks, which are difficult and exhausting to wear.

Edelman et al, in their study Biomonitoring of Chemical Exposure among New York City Firefighters: Responding to the World Trade Center Fire and Collapse (2003), biomonitored exposure to 110 chemicals, including lead, in fire fighters at the scene. Lead in blood and urine of those present when the buildings collapsed, were greater than those who attended 1 to 2 days after the collapse.

A major study of responders (Edelman et al 2003) dismissed the risk from lead exposure as the highest blood lead level was 12.7 µg/dL, well below the US occupational limit of 40 µg/dL, though it noted that “exposed fire fighters showed elevations that were statistically significant compared with control fire fighters, the increase was small, far below clinically significant levels”. This refers to the fact that observable symptoms of acute lead poisoning normally occurs above 70 µg/dL but as numerous studies have shown long tem health impacts, including increased risk of heart attacks which can begin at blood lead levels as low as 2.0 µg/dL (Menke et al 2006).

These and other results relating to health risks of blood lead levels between 2-10 µg/dL for both adults and children have been summarised on a pair fact sheets available on The LEAD Group’s website (Taylor, 2010 a & b). As with asbestos, the health effects can manifest themselves many years later.

Though asbestos was present in ‘significant quantities’, at the site of the collapse of the Twin Towers (“Ground Zero”) - see 9-11 Research, above - it was not possible for the asbestos to be biomonitored:

…current technology does not allow for biomonitoring of asbestos, fiberglass, silicates, and other inorganic particulates. Thus, this study cannot provide any information about exposure to or potential health effects from these materials. (Edelman et al, 2003)

The safest attitude to both lead and asbestos is that no exposure is safe, and that precautions have to be taken when their presence is suspected or known to exist, as it would have been in the smoke, dust, and debris of the Twin Towers.

Why authorities suppress facts as to the attendant dangers at the time of a disaster, whether man-made – such as the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center - or natural, is not under discussion here. One could speculate that they are afraid of mass panic, or of being blamed.

The lesson, if one can call it that, is not that we should be without trust in authorities, or in anyone else. The world works on trust, at every level of human interaction. (See Onora O’Neill: “A Question of Trust”: BBC Reith Lectures 2002.) Cynicism is paralysing and destructive.

On the other hand, experience, caution and common sense are useful, just in case the authorities have got it wrong, or are trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

The lesson is that safety gear - such as respirators or masks in the case of smoke or dust - should always be worn by anyone working where they are likely to be exposed to known or suspected hazards.

This is something that tradespeople and emergency workers, through their trade unions, should demand, and which should be mandatory.

A caller to Global Lead Advice and Support Service (GLASS) reported recently that firefighters attending a grass fire at the former lead smelter at Boolaroo, NSW, were not wearing respiratory protective gear.


Edelman, Philip, et al (2003) Biomonitoring of chemical exposure among New York City firefighters responding to the World Trade Center fire and collapse. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ehp environmental health perspectives V.111 (16): Dec 2003. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1241765/pdf/ehp0111-001906.pdf

9-11 Research: Ground Zero Hazards http://911research.wtc7.net/wtc/groundzero/environment.html

Menke, Andy et al (2006) “Blood Lead Below 0.48 μmol/L (10 μg/dL) and Mortality Among US Adults” in Circulation published online Sep 18, 2006; DOI: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.106.628321 http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/short/114/13/1388

O’Neill, Onora (2002) A Question of Trust. The BBC Reith Lectures 2002. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Taylor, Robert (2010 a) Dangers of a blood lead level above 2 µg/dL and below 10 µg/dL to adults .


Taylor, Robert (2010b) Dangers of a blood lead level above 2 µg/dL and below 10 µg/dL to children. http://www.lead.org.au/fs/fst67.html

Limitations of the Edelman study:

Second, although the control group was composed of FDNY firefighters, comparability may be limited because most had been assigned office duty because of orthopedic injury and therefore may have lacked recent fire-related exposures. Last, current technology does not allow for biomonitoring of asbestos, fiberglass, silicates, and other inorganic particulates. Thus, this study cannot provide any information about exposure to or potential health effects from these materials. (Edelman et al, 2003)

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