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Teaming up with Teamsters

Alison Geyh, an assistant professor from John Hopkins University, was another technical consultant who came to New York City, with funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for a coordinated study of the disaster's potential health effects to workers. She focused her efforts on helping the Teamsters, checking the exposures of the truck drivers carrying debris away from the site.

She would arrive at about 4 a.m., the start of a shift, when she would equip the drivers with small pumps and cassettes with filters to measure their exposures to particulates, asbestos and other pollutants. “A team of us put monitors at various locations in the debris to see what people were exposed to,” says Geyh (pronounced ‘guy’), “whether it was heavy metals or plastics being combusted.”

The job of researching worker exposures and industrial hygiene wasn’t easy, she discovered, as she lugged two 40 to 50 pound bags of air monitoring equipment on foot through the dark canyons of Lower Manhattan office buildings.

The first week they walked in from the Chambers Street subway stop, the equipment was so heavy and the atmosphere so smoky, it felt like “walking onto another planet,” she said.

 “Everyone was working one hundred and fifty percent, 20 hour days. No one was more heroic than anyone else.”

The researchers had to start early and stay late, since they were following the drivers and equipment operators, who worked in two 12-hour shifts. Because the air monitors could not be left overnight, she and her team would retrieve all the equipment, take it back to their hotel, and recalibrate it before turning in. Then the cycle would begin anew the next morning at 4 a.m.

“Everyone was working one hundred and fifty percent, 20 hour days,” says Geyh. “No one was more heroic than anyone else.”

Most draining of all, she found, was the sheer act of identifying and justifying her team’s efforts to the law enforcement officials guarding the site at entrance checkpoints.

At the Pentagon, by contrast, suggests Dodie Gill, of the Arlington County Employee Assistance Program, officials from different departments – Police, Fire, and Health – seemed to be more used to working together. The EAP itself crosses various official specialties.

To thwart any potential questioning of EAP’s authority at the site, says Gill, her team simply joined forces with the incident command, in this case the county Fire Department.

Some monitoring was done on the burning debris pile at Ground Zero.
Photo: EPA

“We even put on fire fighter uniforms,” says Gill.

Environmental health professionals had a harder time at the World Trade Center site.

 “We had to explain ourselves all the time—constantly justifying what we were doing onsite—which was primarily a service to the Teamsters, and also gathering research data for our own studies,” says Geyh. 

Even though her team had authorization to be onsite, with badges from John Hopkins, not being police, fire or EMS, with recognizable uniforms, required some explaining.

“We’re just trying to get a picture of what you’re breathing,’ we would say,” says Geyh, “and they’d shoot back, ‘You need to measure that?’” It didn’t help that their group of four researchers were primarily female in a largely male environment—and not part of the Red Cross or Salvation Army presence. The reaction, she said, was ‘What are you girls doing here?’” she laughs, but everybody was very generous and protective.”

Geyh herself wore a respirator when she felt the air quality had gotten so bad that she had to. “But you couldn’t do it all day,” she says. “It was too cumbersome.”

The reaction, she said, was ‘What are you girls doing here?’”

Wearing a respirator made a difference. Some of the early findings showed, for example, that workers were being exposed to air containing 1,600 to 1,800 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter—hundreds of times what OSHA considers to be the highest safe level—at 10 micrograms per cubic meter.  (And that OSHA standard is based on particulates untainted by asbestos, silica, heavy metals and other contaminants.)

All of Geyh’s air sampling was done at the Ground Zero site. But what was striking to her was the contrast between the level of pollution at ‘the pile’ versus a few blocks away. “But that’s not to say that the wind changing direction might not expose people if a big just of wind blew that caustic dust toward them,” says Geyh.

When it came to identifying what was in the dust and smoke the community was exposed to, that was left to EPA, the state and other agencies that collected thousands of samples. By and large, they continued to assure the public that there were no pollutants of concern.

“But EPA came out way too early about the safety of the site,” Geyh concludes. In many cases, the public wasn’t buying it, she says.  “They’re saying, ‘How can you tell me this is safe when my eyes are burning and I’m coughing?’ ”

In hindsight, she says, “It would have made sense to do a lot more human monitoring to find out what people were exposed to and what was in the ambient air.”