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Gupta: Health concerns at Ground Zero

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) When the World Trade Center towers collapsed, tons of dust containing an assortment of dangerous substances released into the air. Some say it has created new medical concerns for those working and living in the area.

CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta is in Atlanta and spoke with Miles O'Brien about what some are calling the World Trade Center Syndrome.

GUPTA: We just can't seem to forget the large plumes of smoke that we've seen since September 11th after the collapse. (The site) is still showing some smoke, and the health effects of that smoke -- of the small particles, all those sorts of things that are released in the air -- that's what we're talking about.

A syndrome, Miles, typically is something that has a definite cause and a definite effect. We don't know if we necessarily have that here. We don't know what the full effects of all this smoke are going to be, but "Newsweek" reported that up to 40 percent of the 11,000 firefighters continue to have significant coughs requiring medical attention, requiring inhalants with steroids in them.

Some people have gone on and developed frank respiratory problems requiring ventilators. So, all that smoke, all the small particles that are floating through the air are of some health concern. How long term that concern is going to be is something we're going to wait and see.

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Incidentally, Miles, the EPA has been monitoring the air for small particles and for things that people have been frightened and concerned about such as asbestos and have continued to report since September 11th that the levels are very, very low.

So, that's a piece of good news, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Sanjay, assuming these firefighters do have ongoing problems with this smoke inhalation, is it something that is above and beyond what they might encounter in any other fire? Is there something unique to the World Trade Center location, which could cause some greater concern?

GUPTA: I talked to a few different lung doctors about that very issue. And certainly the magnitude of this and the amount of smoke and small particles -- that is, particles that are less than 10 microns in size -- the magnitude of that was much greater obviously with the World Trade Center. So the numbers of people that are complaining of respiratory problems even up until now is significantly higher.

Regarding the other sorts of particles again, asbestos is the thing that springs to mind. One of the lung doctors I talked to put it like this:

There may have been some asbestos in the building that may be out in the air. How dangerous is that? Well it's like if someone were not a smoker and were out to go out and smoke a few packs of cigarettes. Certainly that would increase their risk of lung cancer, but if they stopped smoking and they didn't continue to smoke long term, their risk would probably still be small.

And that's kind of how it was explained to me.

O'BRIEN: Sanjay, it might be worth reminding our viewers -- because when they hear about asbestos, they probably think back to some stories we told 10 years ago or so about the asbestos threat. And at the time, there was some concern that one little piece of asbestos could cause some great difficulties, perhaps even lung cancer. That's been pretty much debunked, hasn't it?

GUPTA: That's right, Miles. It has been debunked and I think the best way to think about it is the folks that have had chronic asbestos exposure -- that is, asbestos exposure over a long period of time -- are those that are most at risk. Sometimes, it can cause just sort of mild lung disease. It can certainly cause lung cancer ... Again, we're talking about long-term asbestos exposures, not high concentration short-term asbestos exposures as we may have seen in New York now.

O'BRIEN: As we've been looking at these pictures from Ground Zero ever since September 11th, you see many of the rescue workers who are closest in are wearing respirators. Is that enough to keep them out of trouble?

GUPTA: We're talking about the respirators here that are very different than masks, Miles. It's an important distinction. These respirators actually continuously filter all the air including all the small particles out and just allow the non-particle air in, and those are good. The EPA Web site, in fact, continues to recommend those for responders to the scene.

They have tested all the way through New York, lower Manhattan, midtown, all the way further north and as you get further north, certainly, the risk goes way down. But those people in lower Manhattan, around that site, are still recommended if they're on the scene to wear these respirators.

O'BRIEN: Let me ask you this: When you go down to lower Manhattan, you see an awful lot of people wearing those paper masks, and I have to wonder when I see them if they really are doing much good.

GUPTA: It's a good point, Miles. The thing that lung specialists are worrying about are the small particles and these are the particles that can actually get down through your nose into your lungs. What they literally do is, they clog up the bottom of your lungs. The bottom of your lungs is the place where air exchanges with your blood and if you clog that area up, you can't get enough air into your blood.

Those are the small particles we're worried about. They are smaller than those masks will be able to prohibit from getting in, and that's why the respirators are being recommended over masks in that situation.


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