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Traditional public health functions

 

Although this was a terrorist incident, and there was concern for bioterrorism, many of the traditional public health functions would be the first tested.

Kelly McKinney led the efforts to address the many environmental health issues that were staring them in the face. After having checked the building for evidence or any radiological hazards or bioterrorism, there were the more routine, standard checks needed to avert any pest outbreaks or rotting food that could spread illness and disease.

“The whole country was in shock. What does your mother do when she wants to show she care? She cooks. She gives you food. And everybody wanted to show they cared,” says Kelly McKinney of New York City’s Department of Health.

 

A big unexpected problem was managing the food donations, and getting a handle on unregulated food sources, which threatened to overwhelm public health officials and create further problems – such as insects and rodents.

 

 “The whole country was in shock. What does your mother do when she wants to show she care? She cooks. She gives you food. And everybody wanted to show they cared,” said McKinney.

 

So the food poured in, from everywhere to Ground Zero. But much of it had to be thrown out.  “To serve food, you had to have a city DOH food certification,” he said, but hundreds of unlicensed feeding stations popped up.

 

 “Port Authority had feeding stations for volunteers coming in,” says McKinney. “But we had to send in teams of sanitarians to shut down a lot of others. All that unauthorized food had to be trucked away.”

 

Authorized food, too, had a shelf life, of course. “There were piles of beef brisket sandwiches on crash carts with Gator Ade and granola bars. But that all started to pile up too,” he says.

 

Food sat on tables, with salad bars lying outside for hours, says McKinney. All of this had to be either vetted or disposed of. Any rotting or questionable food had been disinfected, using bottles of bleach, and all that hauled away as well.

 

Another unexpected problem was the volunteers leaving food around. “You had guys eating a bit of sandwich, then tossing it,” says McKinney. “There was waste everywhere.”

 

All that could have posed further problems with mosquitoes, since this was also, as mentioned, still West Nile Virus season and the weather was still warm.

 

Through tremendous efforts, says McKinney, these problems were managed. “The rodent problem was never really out of control,” he adds, “though we set thousands of rodent bait traps.” 

 

An added problem was enforcement: Enforcing health rules wasn’t always easy with uniformed services. “Some cops got really pissed off,” he says. But over time, DOH altered its protocols to become “more collaborative” with other agencies. “We’d have to say, ‘This could make you sick. I’m ordering you to destroy that food.”

 

Then there were the restaurants. “The enormous amount of food downtown was a problem that we struggled with for weeks,” says McKinney.

Most of the 350 restaurants in the restricted zone around the World Trade Center were hastily abandoned by their owners on September 11, leaving huge amounts of spoiled food to be cleaned up and disposed of. The Pest Control office partnered with the Department of Sanitation to get into and clean another 92 closed restaurants.

Enforcing health rules wasn’t always easy with uniformed services.

In the first few weeks, the Office of Pest Control inspected some 469 properties of all kinds, exterminating 388 of them with rat poisons and insect sprays. In the weeks to come, the office would inspect 535 establishments and exterminate 982 more.

The city Health Department reported that tests taken immediately after the blast showed “no evidence of any biologic or chemical agents.” Meanwhile, the Department advised residents and workers “to guard against dust and soot which can cause respiratory symptoms and eye and throat irritation,” and directed to the DOH website with a “Public Health Advisory for residents and people returning to work in the nearby area.” In this, residents were advised to remove dust with wet rags and mops, rather than brooms, which could re-suspend the dust.


Photo: Andrea Booher/FEMA News Photo

However, as the catastrophe unfolded, it became clear that the assortment of hazards at the disaster site at the World Trade Center would become a prolonged campaign and not simply a short-term event that could be cleaned up and disposed of quickly.

 

As public health experts all agreed, the World Trade Center (WTC) disaster was “unprecedented in the history of the United States.” City, state and federal agencies monitored conditions at the site for month and the city Department of Health (DOH) said it was “committed to working with the community to identify and address health concerns.”

 

A year later, researchers studying the dust and smoke in greater detail would characterize the conditions as having constituted a health “emergency.”