TOPICS > Science

Dust, Debris at World Trade Center Site May Have Made Workers Sick

November 21, 2006 at 6:15 PM EDT

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: Clouds of toxic dust rolled down New York City streets like tidal waves on September 11, 2001, engulfing tens of thousands of people fleeing the collapse of the World Trade Center.

In the months that followed, thousands more labored in what they called “the pile,” first trying to rescue people, and later recovering human remains. And all the while, they inhaled the dust.

Philip Landrigan is the chairman of preventive medicine at Manhattan’s Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.

DR. PHILIP LANDRIGAN, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine: The major component of the World Trade Center dust was pulverized concrete — cement — which was very, very alkaline, had a pH of 10 or 11, which means that the alkalinity of this material is equivalent to that of Drano.

TOM BEARDEN: The dust also contained billions of microscopic shards of glass and other contaminants. The question is: What did the dust do to those who inhaled it?

JOHN WALCOTT, Former Police Detective: You trudged through, you know, this debris and smoke. And half of the street was sunny, the other half was a dark cloud, you know, debris up to my thighs.

TOM BEARDEN: NYPD Detectives John Walcott and his partner, Richard Volpe, spent hundreds of hours at the Trade Center.

RICHARD VOLPE, Former Police Detective: Basically, I didn’t have a shovel or anything. I just started digging with my hands and going through the rubble and picking up, you know, twisted metal and stuff like that, just trying to find somebody.

TOM BEARDEN: They believe the experience is slowly killing them.

JOHN WALCOTT: I ended up with AML leukemia, which is mainly caused by exposure to benzene, which we all know is in airline fuel.

TOM BEARDEN: How about you?

RICHARD VOLPE: I was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, which is basically the filters in my kidneys, they don’t filter out the toxins in my body. Right now, I’m sitting here with less than 40 percent function in both my kidneys.

A class-action lawsuit

Joseph Graziano
Mailman School of Public Health
The issue of certainty is one that we often dance around. That's the objective of science: It's the search for the truth.

TOM BEARDEN: Attorney David Worby has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Volpe and Walcott and nearly 9,000 more Ground Zero rescue workers. In the courtroom, he will have to prove it's the dust that caused their illnesses.

DAVID WORBY, Lawyer: I have 80 clients who have died, some from heart attacks, from pulmonary collapse, some from leukemia, some from cancers that are carcinogenically related.

TOM BEARDEN: The lawsuit was filed against the city of New York and its contractors. City officials did not return calls for interview requests. Worby knows that proving all these injuries were caused by the dust will be a formidable task.

DAVID WORBY: In court, you have to prove with a reasonable degree of medical certainty, based upon recognized epidemiological and toxicological studies, expert opinions, peer-review rated medical studies, with 95 percent scientific certainty, upon which your experts base their decisions. So if you're dealing with a situation that no one's seen before, it's awfully tough to come up with those studies.

DOCTOR: Take a big breath in again.

TOM BEARDEN: And scientific studies, particularly those relating to human health, take decades. There have been similar cases before: Agent Orange in Vietnam; industrial chemicals at Love Canal, New York; dioxin at Times Beach, Missouri.

JOSEPH GRAZIANO, Mailman School of Public Health: The issue of certainty is one that we often dance around. That's the objective of science: It's the search for the truth.

TOM BEARDEN: Joseph Graziano is associate dean for research at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. He says it's extraordinarily hard to scientifically establish specific causes and effects.

JOSEPH GRAZIANO: Each of us has a different lifestyle, a different diet, a different family history. And so we end up studying sets of people who are a mix of people, and not everyone will respond to a given dose or a given dose of a mixture of chemicals in the same fashion.

TOM BEARDEN: He says what's needed most to make a causal connection between dust and disease is time.

JOSEPH GRAZIANO: It's like developing a piece of film in the darkroom. You look at the film early on, and you see a faint image of what the picture is. You look at cigarette smoking; it takes 20 years before cancer is developed, for example. And asbestos exposure, it takes many years before the mesothelioma is developed.

Scientists supporting the claims

Dr. William Rom
Bellevue Hospital Center
We are convinced that this is a direct result from the dust exposure to the World Trade Center dust.

TOM BEARDEN: But Detective Volpe says the one thing many Trade Center workers don't have is time.

RICHARD VOLPE: People are dying everyday, and time is everything right now. I mean, they want to sit here, and they want to do all these different tests, and they want to do all this research. You know, we might not have that time for the research.

TOM BEARDEN: Some scientists believe they have already proven a connection between Trade Center dust and respiratory problems. Dr. William Rom, who is director of chest services at Bellevue Hospital, showed us microscopic images of material found in the lungs of a firefighter who came into his hospital in respiratory failure.

DR. WILLIAM ROM, Bellevue Hospital Center: This is a World Trade Center dust particle. You can see that it's been burned and it has a very rounded shape, but it's got some odd pieces to it.

TOM BEARDEN: Relatively speaking, how big is that?

DR. WILLIAM ROM: A red blood cell is seven microns, so this is below the size of a red blood cell. So that means that this can be inhaled into the nose and into the trachea and way out to the periphery of the lung, to the air sacs.

TOM BEARDEN: Rom also found a burned piece of fiberglass and this asbestos fiber.

DR. WILLIAM ROM: And this is very long and very narrow. So this kind of fiber can get into the lung by coming lengthwise, with the end or radius leading the way.

TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Rom says an awful lot of people inhaled these materials.

DR. WILLIAM ROM: Over 11,000 firefighters responded to the initial collapse and were exposed to the most intense dust clouds over those days. And over 1,800 of these firefighters have been retired on a respiratory disability.

TOM BEARDEN: And that is -- you're satisfied that's a direct result of working in that area?

DR. WILLIAM ROM: We are convinced that this is a direct result from the dust exposure to the World Trade Center dust.

TOM BEARDEN: And in September, Mt. Sinai released a significant study that monitored roughly 9,200 recovery workers, showing similar connections.

DR. PHILIP LANDRIGAN: The major finding that we reported was that approximately 60 percent of these people had developed new respiratory symptoms since starting work at Ground Zero.

DOCTOR: Normal breath in...

TOM BEARDEN: While scientists seem to agree there's a causal connection between the dust and respiratory illnesses, attorney Worby says thousands of people have also contracted many other diseases, like cancer and kidney disease.

DAVID WORBY: So you've got a list of carcinogens; you've got a list of toxins; you've got a list of diseases that my people have; you have the 50,000 people who were there, the 50,000 people who weren't there; you stack them all up, and the catastrophic response scientifically is that, "Oh, my God, thousands and thousands and thousands of people are going to be significantly ill, and more people will die post-9/11 from these illnesses than died on 9/11."

Government support and liability

Richard Volpe
Former Police Detective
I knew that there's a possibility that I could get killed in the line of duty. I'm not here upset or angry that I'm sick, you know, because I could just as easily got shot or got into a car accident and died.

TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Landrigan says it'll take a long-term commitment to study and treat all of the victims of the World Trade Center attack who might have other symptoms.

DR. PHILIP LANDRIGAN: I think our responsibility as doctors who are caring for these people is to continue to examine them conscientiously, to continue to publish our reports every couple of years as new data become available, and continuously to sift the evidence and see what the connections are.

TOM BEARDEN: But who's going to pay for that long-term treatment and the studies? This fall, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the establishment of the World Trade Center Environmental Health Center at Bellevue Hospital, an additional program building on several other city health-monitoring efforts. And he renewed his call for long-term funding from state and federal authorities for treatment programs.

This month, the federal government distributed an additional $40 million to various treatment centers. But Worby and other attorneys have also sued the city on behalf of rescue workers, saying it owes direct compensation to those who have fallen ill, like Richard Volpe.

RICHARD VOLPE: You know, when I signed on the dotted line to be a New York City police officer, I knew that there's a possibility that I could get killed in the line of duty. I'm not here upset or angry that I'm sick, you know, because I could just as easily got shot or got into a car accident and died.

I mean, when I signed on the line, I knew that chance was there. The only thing I would say is I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed at the fact that they made us out to be these heroes, which I don't consider myself a hero; I just consider a person that did his job. But they say what heroes we are and, now that we're sick, everybody's turned their back on us.

TOM BEARDEN: Initially, the city argued that it was immune from liability while they were providing services during an attack on U.S. soil. After all, the city didn't destroy the World Trade Center; terrorists did. Worby argued that the city was liable because it failed to protect workers after the emergency was over.

DAVID WORBY: There's always been an emergency doctrine. You know, if a cop's chasing a robber, and he bumps into a pedestrian and knocks him over, we give the cop the benefit of a doubt. He was chasing a robber. That's an emergency.

When the cop catches the robber and has him in the handcuffs, there's no need for him to be running and knocking anyone over anymore. The emergency is over.

And although the motion was thousands of pages long and 40 hours, the 60 seconds of my argument was, "You know, your honor, no planes hit the buildings on September 12th. No one else flew into our airspace. No war was declared. No one else fired a gun. No one else jumped off a building. Nothing else happened. The emergency was on 9/11, and that's where the immunity was for whatever we tried to do to save lives."

TOM BEARDEN: In October, a federal judge dismissed the city's immunity claim and the trial will move forward, although no date has been set.