A 'Chemical Factory' in Skies
By Laurie Garrett
September 11, 2003
The air that hovered over New York in the months after by the collapse of
the Twin Towers contained an unprecedented combination of chemicals,
scientists said yesterday. As such, they said it may be impossible to
forecast the long-term health impact.
Scientists from government and university laboratories gathered yesterday
for the first time to compare findings about the dust, debris and polluted
air in the aftermath of 9/11, in a conference at the annual meeting of the
American Chemical Society.
The picture that emerged from the presentations depicted an unprecedented
chemical event that evolved minute-by-minute, throwing a stew of compounds
into the air. Researchers said one molecule detected had never been found
in air before. The plume was marked by a mix so complex, the content
varied centimeter by centimeter, researchers said.
Ground Zero fires smoldered for months and reached temperatures of 1,800
degrees, creating what a scientist characterized as a "chemical factory"
that brewed new compounds. One effect was a sort of mini-ozone hole, in
which chlorinated compounds scavenged hydrogen and other atoms off
molecules, transforming them into volatile gases.
"The fact that the plume did not stay in one direction means the exposures
to people were intermittent," said Paul Lioy of the Environmental and
Occupational Health Sciences Institute of the University of Medicine and
Dentistry in New Jersey. "Here it was, a catastrophic event. Initial
exposures were basically a blackout - exposures people will, cumulatively,
never see in a lifetime again. The problem we have now is we don't know
the long-term, lifetime, health consequences. We just don't know."
There was a degree of disagreement among experts in attendance. Thomas
Cahill, an air pollution expert from the University of California, said
starting on Oct. 3, 2001, air monitored on the roof of a building in the
West Village, a mile north of Ground Zero, showed "unprecedented ambient
levels" of fine particulate matter, sulfur, acidic aerosols, heavy metals
and other dangerous compounds. "I have sampled more than 7,000 samples of
very fine aerosols for Kuwait [during the 1992 oil fires], China and so
on," Cahill said, "and October 3 was the worst." But NYU environmental
science expert George Thurston said most of the pollutants measured were
normal for New York. Thurston's group started collecting air samples on
Sept. 28 from NYU's Downtown Hospital, five blocks northeast of Ground
Zero, and comparative samples from northern New Jersey and eastern
Greenwich Village. He said by October, fires and dust contributed only a
third of New York's pollution, and by January it had no real impact. Most
scientists did not agree. The EPA's Joseph Pinto used optical density
analysis of videos and photos shot on 9/11 to determine the wavelengths of
light scattering to determine what chemicals and debris were present.
"What I'm coming up with really should be viewed as lower limits," Pinto
said. "You can see clear enhancement, one hundred to a thousand-fold, in
pollution levels due to the World Trade Center."
Lioy's group is creating three-dimensional models of the plume and debris
movement. The intense heat of Ground Zero blew the plume upwards, creating
a "loft effect," he said, which actually protected New Yorkers from the
worst of the chemical onslaught, though it also lifted the gases and
particles over Manhattan and dropped them on Brooklyn and Sandy Hook, N.J.
U.S. Census Bureau data are being added to the computer model, creating a
neighborhood-by-neighborhood picture of human exposure that the
researchers hope will help health officials determine locales at risk for
long-term health problems. One molecule, described by the EPA's Erik
Swartz, was present at levels "that dwarfed all others":
1,3-diphenylpropane. "We've never observed it in any sampling we've ever
done," Swartz said. He said it was most likely produced by the plastic of
tens of thousands of burning computers.
Roger Clark of the U.S. Geological Survey's Colorado laboratory led a team
that provided the first strong pollution data for the White House,
delivered on Sept. 17. The next day the White House announced operations
would shift from rescue to recovery, because the heat level precluded the
possibility of survivors beneath the rubble.
Copyright (c) 2003, Newsday, Inc.