NIEHS Responds to World Trade Center Attacks. (NIEHS News)

By Manuel, John S. | Environmental Health Perspectives, November 2001 | Go to article overview

NIEHS Responds to World Trade Center Attacks. (NIEHS News)


Manuel, John S., Environmental Health Perspectives


The buildings have fallen. The worst of the fires are out. But environmental health hazards still exist in and around the ruins of the World Trade Center following the attacks of 11 September 2001. Workers at Ground Zero toil in a dangerous environment. They and others exposed to dust and fumes in the wake of the building collapse and fires may suffer adverse health effects for years to come. The NIEHS is playing a role in addressing these threats through four of its ongoing programs--the Worker Education and Training Program (WETP), the Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) Centers Program, the Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers Program, and the Superfund Basic Research Program.

Worker Education: A Crucial First Step

Several thousand workers are involved in demolition and cleanup work at Ground Zero, work that will continue for as long as a year. Besides the routine dangers involved in cutting and removing construction debris, workers may also be exposed to a host of toxicologic hazards. Specialized training is required to safely work under these conditions.

Hundreds of these workers, including members of the International Union of Operating Engineers, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers, the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers, the Laborers International Union of North America, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, have received some training through the WETP. However, Bechtel Corporation, which was hired by New York City to develop a health and safety plan for the World Trade Center site, estimates that all of the workers who will be engaged in demolition and cleanup over the long haul will need additional training in areas such as handling of hazardous waste, lead, and asbestos, and working in confined spaces.

WETP director Chip Hughes visited Ground Zero the first week in October to assess worker safety and health issues. "There is still no organized worker and health training on site," Hughes says. "There is limited personal protection and very little exposure assessment. Nearly six thousand injuries and illnesses have already been reported, ranging from headaches to concussions. If we don't bring a higher level of protection soon, more people could be hurt and more lives lost." The WETP released a preliminary assessment of the potential safety/health hazards and training needs on October 22 at the American Public Health Association annual meeting (the report is available online at http://www.wetp.org/).

The institute's first goal in this area is to secure funding needed to provide all workers with the necessary training to conduct their work safely. The NIEHS has awarded a total of $440,000 to five organizations, including the Laborers/Associated General Contractors Education and Training Fund, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), the IAFF, the International Union of Operating Engineers, and the Center to Protect Workers' Rights. Each of these groups has been working to provide much-needed equipment, resources, sampling, and training to the workers engaged in the World Trade Center cleanup. The NIEHS has also requested an emergency appropriation from the Secretary of Health and Human Services to expedite immediate on-site training and technical assistance through existing cooperative agreements with groups such as the IAFF.

A specific training priority is to reestablish training capacity for the New York City Fire Department hazardous materials (HazMat) teams--many trainers were killed in the building collapse. Other priorities include health and safety training for site cleanup workers, health care and personnel training to support ongoing cleanup and remediation, training and certification in the use of personal protective equipment (such as respirators and suits) in the cleanup effort, weapons of mass destruction training for the HazMat workforce, and cross-training in craft skills, safety, and health for demolition and remediation workers. …

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