GROUND ZERO'S LASTING EFFECTS
the workers hauling debris from Ground Zero experience long-term
health problems from the polluted air at the disaster site? That's
the question that John
Groopman, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Environmental
Health Sciences, and Alison
Geyh, PhD, will now be able to explore, thanks to a $400,000
grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
A team of researchers headed by Geyh had initially surveyed workers
at the World Trade Center disaster site in October ("Danger
in the Dust," Special Edition 2001). Their findings convinced
the NIEHS to support a long-term study. Early analysis of the data
has shown, for instance, that workers were exposed to air containing
1,600 to 1,800 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter.
OSHA considers 10 micrograms per cubic meter to be the maximum safe
level - and that's when all particles are benign.
Geyh, an assistant scientist, Environmental Health Sciences, says
that researchers are continuing to analyze the composition of the
particles they collected at the site in October. So far, the samples
have not revealed any detectable levels of crystalline silicates,
which can lead to respiratory diseases. And early asbestos findings
have also been potentially reassuring: The numbers of asbestos fibers
captured by the researchers' filters were consistently low, and
few asbestos fibers detected were longer than 5 microns in length.
(OSHA only concerns itself with fibers 5 microns or longer.)
"Even if you believe these short fibers are hazardous,"
Breysse, PhD, a professor of Environmental Health Sciences,
"our total fiber counts were still 10 times lower than the
threshold danger level. Still, our conclusions must be carefully
wrought when reporting on a politically charged issue such as asbestos."
The School researchers have remained in contact with the workers
studied in October, and are now assembling a follow-up cohort. This
long-term study will also include additional clean-up workers newly
identified by workers' unions.
Worried after two of their own died as a result of the fall
anthrax attacks, U.S. postal workers turned last fall to Lynn
Goldman and Cliff
Mitchell at the School for guidance on how to protect themselves
More recently, the postal workers have sought Goldman and Mitchell's
advice on the U.S. Postal Service remedy for bioterrorism: irradiating
the mail to kill anthrax spores.
American Postal Workers Union members wanted information on
general radiation safety and had other questions about the risks
involved with the irradiation process, according to Mitchell,
an assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences. "The
treatment and what we're doing to the mail will itself create
potential new hazards," says Mitchell, MD, MS, MPH '91.
Irradiating mail that contains plastics generates "irritating
and toxic compounds," according to Mitchell.
Postal workers are worried about the effects of letters
irradiated to the point of crispiness.
Irradiated letters have been described as "crispy"
and "lightly toasted," while plastic materials have
melted. But the process has had more serious effects.
Postal workers have complained of nausea, rashes, headaches,
burning eyes, and other conditions after opening bags of the
irradiated mail headed for government offices in Washington
D.C. Opening the bags in ventilated tents and letting the mail
"off gas" for two days appears to have reduced the
complaints, according to news reports.
However, the postal worker's union wants more information to
ensure the occupational safety of its workers in the new era
of bioterrorism. Goldman, professor of Environmental Health
Sciences, and Mitchell say that research, supported by grants
and other funding, is needed before science can provide definitive
answers. Studies need to be done on the effects of the extended
antibiotic prophylactic treatments that many postal workers
have followed, and new training is needed for mail handlers.
"We're realizing people who work with mail now need new
skills and knowledge that they've never needed before,"
says Goldman, MD, MPH '81. Mail handlers need to know how to
identify and "triage" potential hazards in order to
respond appropriately. - BWS