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9/11: Fall and Rise
Dung Hoang

9/11: Fall and Rise (continued)

Meanwhile, in New York City, Geyh, Breysse and a team of students had brought equipment to ground zero. Arriving in late September, Geyh managed to get permission for her team to work on the site, a herculean task at the time. The challenges seemed insurmountable—jurisdictions changed constantly, bureaucracy was steep, and there was no coordination among the countless people, agencies, universities and medical services that converged to help. “No one was really willing to step up,” says D’Ann Williams, a student at the time, “and Alison did.”

Geyh secured entree by collaborating with an industrial hygienist with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ Safety and Health Department; the Teamsters represented the truck drivers who drove away the debris. Her team expanded their efforts to include ironworkers (who cut the enormous debris), crane operators, carpenters, laborers and dock builders, each with their own unions that, unlike the firefighters and police unions, did not have built-in health services. Says Julie Herbstman, who was on Geyh’s team and is now an assistant professor at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, “The trade unions were major players at the site but didn’t have anyone looking out for them.”

“We were some of the first people on the site doing air sampling,” says Breysse, PhD ’85, MHS.

Their team performed respiratory health and exposure assessments for the truck drivers and others. Herbstman, PhD, ScM, and Williams, DrPH ’10, MS, now an EHS research associate, helped characterize the airborne particulate matter, asbestos and volatile organic compounds at the perimeter and in the middle of the site. Their findings helped to justify medical monitoring that continues today.

“[The Baltimore City health commissioner] called and asked if I would help with preparedness for radiation, dirty bombs, things like that. I said, ‘Sure, whatever you need.’ Then I hung up and Googled ‘dirty bomb.’” —Jon Links

Geyh’s team returned in December 2001, and again in April 2002, and they’ve published several studies addressing health effects of the plume that hung over Manhattan. One finding identifies short-term health effects, which include respiratory and musculoskeletal problems, eye injuries and elevated rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression among rescue and recovery workers and volunteers. Some firefighters at the site developed the “World Trade Center cough,” and exposure was associated with a substantial and “probably permanent” loss of lung function, according to Geyh and her co-authors.

While the short-term effects have been documented, both Breysse and Burke note that people working at the site were exposed to inhaled carcinogens—and they acknowledge that any associated increased risk for types of cancer may not become apparent for decades.

“The problem with emergency response situations is that you often don’t recognize there’s a health problem until time has passed,” says Breysse. “The big mistake with the 9/11 response was what happened to the workers on the site. We’ve learned from what happened after 9/11 to pay more attention to health and safety of responders.”

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