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Biggest vacuum: Respirators

 

But the biggest environmental problem was the air rescue workers were breathing at Ground Zero, says Burger, who had experienced the unforgettable, sweet acrid smell himself there on the second night.

 

“You had a nightmare here—everyone wanting to help and driving through the night to get to New York,” recalls Burger. “Anyone could get in there before they set up these check points. They’d say, ‘I drove here all night for the past two nights,’ and would do anything to find a place on ‘the pile.’

 

But these volunteers needed to be convinced to wear respirators, says Burger, because in their grief they were reluctant to.

 

That was a very understandable reaction, first responders agree. “It was tough to get guys to wear masks and to operate with any responsible protection in this strenuous environment,” says Anthony Sutton, director of Emergency Management in Westchester County, N.Y. “Their brothers and friends were in there and they wanted to get them out because that’s what they’d want done for them.” Mark Penn, director of Arlington County, Virginia’s Emergency Management Office agrees. “If I’d a been there, I would have been there on my knees too.”

 

However, both local officials and CDC personnel quickly recognized that the occupational health issues affecting rescue workers were not being managed, such as fitting workers for particulate masks and monitoring the safety of their food supply. Together they began to develop a comprehensive worker health and safety program, says Meehan. “The Health Department took it upon itself but the dilemma was enforcement. They were trying to balance the need for workers to be protected with personal protective equipment vs. their personal emotional needs.”

 

“People calling the shots at the top were simply not focused on safety.”

 

The city also got help from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a part of the CDC, who sent industrial hygienists with technical expertise to help assign proper respiratory protection. The city DOH, led by McKinney had arrived for the first time down on the pile September 13th, leading a group of 15 hygienists from NIOSH to test what workers were being exposed to. From the first personal sample readings, says McKinney, the city had determined that “Everyone who works on the pile needs to wear P100 dual-cartridge half-face respirators with combined Organic Vapor/ Acid Gas (OV/AG) filter cartridges.”

 

“If it weren’t for the local environmental health department there would have been little done,” says Burger. “They shone in the emergency response to the WTC disaster.”

 

As time wore on, though, with responsibility for worker protection confused as authority shifted to the Department of Design and Construction, compliance with respiratory use failed. “Kelly and I looked at each other and said, ‘It’s not getting done,’’ says Burger.

 

No one could say with any certainty how long the process of recovery would take—nor how difficult the process of protecting workers would be.