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Air quality concerns hover over ground zero

From Brian Palmer

NEW YORK (CNN) -- As the dust settles at the World Trade Center site, recovery workers and people living nearby worry about the long-term effects of dangerous materials released into the air when the towers collapsed.

"This is potentially a hazardous waste dump," said Don Carson, who runs the hazardous materials program for the International Operating Engineers Union and its crane and heavy-equipment workers.

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Materials used to build and run the twin towers -- asbestos and fiberglass for insulation, coolant for air conditioning -- were released when they collapsed, along with smoke from burning debris.

Elevated levels of asbestos, above the federally allowable limits, have been found in some spots, stirring up concern about the health effects of breathing tainted air, Carson said.

The smoke may be unpleasant, city, state and federal health officials agree -- but it's not a health threat.

"It may be uncomfortable and it may be offensive -- and it is in many ways -- but the reality is, it is not dangerous," New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said.

Experts: Risk is low

Independent studies from around ground zero have shown concentrations of pollutants higher than official samples, but experts say the surrounding community does not appear to be in peril.

"Virtually no one will develop the scarring lung disease that comes with asbestos exposure. It requires much more exposure than anyone will experience," said Dr. Stephen Levin of the Mount Sinai Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Yet residents still worry about other pollutants. Alon and Blake Vaknin -- eight months pregnant -- watched the first tower collapse from their apartment a block away, then fled with their daughter Maia. They say they won't be moving back anytime soon.

"It just concerns me," Blake Vaknin said.

Workers take precautions at the site. The rubble is hosed down to control dust, and respirators are issued to everyone involved in the cleanup. If those procedures are followed for the duration of the cleaning, said Carson, the potential threat should be low.

Recovery workers like John Powers, meanwhile, say the hazards are part of the job.

"You've got to kind of trust the people that are here to monitor and look after you," he said.


• International Union of Operating Engineers
• Department of Community Medicine of Mount Sinai School of Medicine

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