Researchers study health effects of World Trade Center dust
Paul Lioy, director of Exposure Science at the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI), still feels proud after 10 years of the mass cooperation that drew the country together after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Although he was not a rescue worker, he experienced some of that synergy when it came to his research — analyzing dust particles from the fallen World Trade Center.
In a matter of days, Lioy assembled his first team of researchers when a number of agencies asked if he could collect dust immediately after the attacks.
"As soon as some my colleagues knew I had samples, I had people…saying ‘Paul, send us what you got.' I said, ‘I have no money' and they said, ‘Debt doesn't matter. We don't care about the money. It was about doing work,'" he said.
To Lioy, the feeling was very gratifying.
"One of the best things about academics in the United States is the fact that if you know people and you know how to work together, you can develop collaborative teams, and you can get things done," he said.
The effort began as a volunteer effort, comprised of Lioy and a few of his colleagues at EOHSI, but it expanded to include researchers from around the nation.
"We were very concerned at that point because there were a mass amount of materials and we were wondering what was in it. … So we decided to … analyze the entire dust, not make any judgments beforehand as what to analyze and what not to analyze," he said.
After inspecting the samples, the team found that some of the major components included cement, cellulose from destroyed paper, some asbestos and polycyclic automatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) or potent atmospheric pollutants that are formed by incomplete combustion of carbon-containing fuels.
But one of the more damaging substances found was fiberglass and other glass particles, Lioy said.
"[There were] 110 stories and two buildings of glass that just basically fell apart, plus interior glass," he said. "And it didn't fall apart and look like broken glass. It became into these little daggers of dust fiber. It was pretty environment."
Fine to coarse particles range from .1 to 10 micrometers in diameter, he said. But the particles they observed ranged from 10 to hundreds of micrometers in diameter.
"Under normal circumstances, you wouldn't think of that being a health concerns but then you put it together and think ‘large quantities of it, inhaled' … plus the fact it had all these fibers in it," he said. "And those fibers also would tend to be like daggers going out into the before."
But the adverse health affects due to dust inhalation were thoroughly researched and recorded.
Studies done at the University and other institutions have shown there is persistent asthma in about 27 percent of the rescue workers, Lioy said. Thirty to 40 percent have had incidents of long-term sinusitis.
It is also likely that workers swallowed the dust materials in addition to inhaling them, which Lioy said led to instances of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
"Another thing that's very important is that the people with the highest level of effect and longer-lasting effect are ones who got there early and were exposed to the dust as it was being generated in the first few hours," he said.
Still, Lioy said dangerous dust particles and long-term health affects were far from peoples' minds that day, which may have added to the danger.
"We didn't start making the connection as quickly as we should," he said. "Within the first week it was clear that something was happening because people began to talk about a cough then it became coined ‘the World Trade Center charge."
Since President Barack Obama signed the 9/11 Health Bill — which provides $4.3 billion over five years for health coverage to 9/11 rescue workers — in January, research work like Lioy's had become useful.
But he refuses to develop personal feelings on the issue.
"I try not to politicize things because it's unfair to anyone," he said. "All I can do is make sure when I do my work I give honest answers and give the best info I have together."