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A ‘pollution event’

 

The towers, with nearly three thousand people trapped tragically inside, started imploding in a shattering instant, then “pancaking” downwards with a physics that structural engineers struggled to explain afterwards. A week later, construction experts at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would describe the pulverized remains of the buildings as amounting to some 1.2 million tons of building materials. (3)

 

In New York, the collapse of the towers and nearby buildings created a vast, 16-acre disaster zone. The towers were so high and the “pancaking” effect so forceful that extraordinarily destructive forces were unleashed.

 

Tower One collapsing - 9:56 a.m.
Photo: Paul Olivier

 

First there was the plume created by the initial fire that rose to 1000 degrees C. that sent up a mushroom cloud of some 91,000 liters of exploding jet fuel containing benzene and other toxic chemicals as well as billowing smoke.

 

Then there was the downward implosion of the building, which shook and toppled nearby structures and spread pulverized cement, glass and other dust for miles in a widely dispersed pattern.

 

Finally, heated by an intense fire, which was propelled by 180,00 gallons of fuel, the massive buildings became an incinerator that rendered building materials that would not be considered immediately hazardous into flying toxins—volatilized combustion products.

 

There may be no way to know the exact composition of all the building materials at the WTC site, but some of the major hazards are known, including 2,000 tons of asbestos used in its construction, and countless fiberglass and Freon refrigerants used in air conditioning systems.

 

There was an estimated 424,000 tons of concrete, sheet rock, gypsum, fiberglass, and glass; that doesn’t count everything inside the buildings—an estimated 50,000 personal computers each containing some 4 pounds of lead (adding up to some 200,000 pounds of lead alone); glass, PCBs; mercury from light bulbs and computer parts; 130,000 gallons of transformer oil. The Natural Resources Defense Council, in its report on the environmental impacts of the WTC disaster, called it “an unprecedented environmental assault for lower Manhattan,” involving thousands of toxic components released simultaneously that constituted a “pollution event.” (4)

 

On Sept.11, few recognized how profound the implications of these disasters would be on environmental health, even as many federal, state and local agencies and organizations moved rapidly to aid in response and recovery efforts. (5)

Later, Revella and other local rescuers would learn that the heat and energy that led to the subsequent collapse of the buildings created the force of an earthquake totaling 2 on the Richter scale, as a million tons of steel, concrete and plastic were pulverized and imploded downward like a volcanic eruption spewing dust and debris. (6)  (Somewhere in there, too, Revella was to learn, he’d suffer two ruptured disks, in addition to surviving a piece of steel jammed into one of his feet! In the process of surviving the explosion, he received two shots with cortisone.) All this, he says, hasn’t kept him from missing a day of work in 26 years on the force.

But that was the least of his efforts that traumatic day. Having escaped the collapse of three buildings, hours and hours later, he would go on to don his main “hat” and commitment and responsibility—as an environmental specialist.

 

In that role, Revella helped to coordinate the health and safety response to the crisis with the city’s Office of Emergency Management and other agencies, including the city Department of Health. From day one, Revella would help enlist the aid of ironworkers at the debris piles and set up systems for addressing environmental concerns—air monitoring, removing dust and debris, and reopening a closed landfill to hold wastes.

 

"Terry Revella was, and is, a passionate advocate for safety and health and the environment,” says Kelly McKinney, Associate Commissioner for Regulatory and Environmental Health Services for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, describing how his team of first responders was indeed first on the scene addressing environmental health on September 11.


Moving away from the towers - 9:40 a.m.
Photo: Paul Olivier

Captain Revella posted his staff in the middle of the street at truck routes around Ground Zero and had state Department of Environmental Conservation police stopping and inspecting trucks and forcing their operators to enclose the truck beds completely with tarp, says McKinney.

 

“Uncooperative or argumentative drivers, or those who showed up at checkpoints untarped, would get their licenses confiscated by the Captain,” says McKinney. Revella was the first to get an air sample of Ground Zero, finding that the power company Con Edison had an industrial hygiene group downtown. “That was the first air quality data I saw from Ground Zero,” says McKinney.

 

 

Sadly, though, the captain was one of the few hazardous material certified experts not lost in the Towers—partly why his expertise as an EPA chemical-safety and hazardous-materials specialist with credentials enabling him to teach first-responders, was called upon that day.

 

Most of the New York City Fire Department’s hazardous waste teams were lost in the initial collapse of the buildings.

 

That’s because most of the New York City Fire Department’s hazardous waste teams were lost in the initial collapse of the buildings, as if foreshadowing some of the dramas that would later be played out in terms of the controversy over the hazards of World Trade Center dust.  The NYFD had committed some 75 percent of its teams, “nearly all its Special Operations units such as Hazardous Materials and Rescue teams to the World Trade Center.” (7)

 

It would be months before the full impact of the environmental devastation would be recognized. And many debates would ensue in the community and among workers over whether environmental officials had sufficiently considered the long-term hazards at Ground Zero. Those health impacts—and debates—would trigger controversial hearings at the city, state and even national level, and are still unfolding to this day.

 

Fortunately for the D.C. area, the terrorists’ target at the Pentagon, the vast 280-acre reserve in Arlington County, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., was not geographically situated in the middle of one of the most densely populated urban centers; the disaster there did not leave behind a mountain of toxic dust and debris that covered cars, trucks, building, and people, although fire did overcome many rescuers at the scene. (8)

 

At the Pentagon, too, huge plumes of smoke from the explosion that damaged the west side of the building also sent hundreds of toxic substances floating into the air, everything from pulverized concrete and glass to burning plastics; but these chemicals quickly dispersed and didn’t have effects on local populations.  EPA sampled debris from inside the Pentagon for asbestos, lead and other metals. Although a few samples in the ash and soot turned up turned up high concentrations of antimony and arsenic, according to the agency, “short-term exposure and limited routes of contact have minimized any potential for harm.” Workers handling the material, which was trucked away to an approval landfill, were required to wear respirators and protective clothing.

 

Both terrorist incidents provide almost textbook lessons in crisis management. In both situations, the same questions apply: What can be done to best protect environmental health?  What can the public expect of health officials charged with protecting their safety?