Ground Zero Research Boondoggle

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson announced this week an $11.4 million contract with the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine to determine whether World Trade Center rescue and recovery workers are experiencing related illnesses or injuries.

"We at Mount Sinai are grateful to President Bush, Secretary Thompson and Congress whose efforts have made this possible," said Mt. Sinai Medical Center CEO Dr. Kenneth Berns.

The rest of us should be far less sanguine. This is a waste of money.

Taxpayers will be paying for free clinical examinations of workers in order to identify health problems most likely to occur as a result of work at or near Ground Zero.

A database of findings will be compiled that will allow "researchers to assess potential occupational illness and injury patterns among the workers, and provide data for future studies…" -- i.e., wasteful spending to come.

The collapse of the World Trade Center towers certainly was a unique event in many respects -- but not in terms of the health of rescue and recovery workers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in May that worker exposures to air contaminants at Ground Zero generally did not exceed safety standards.

That study evaluated "general area" and "personal breathing zone" air samples for numerous potential air contaminants, including: asbestos (from insulation and fireproofing materials), crystalline silica (from concrete), carbon monoxide (from fires and engine exhaust), diesel exhaust, mercury (from fluorescent lights), Freon, heavy metals, hydrogen sulfide (from decomposing bodies and food), inorganic acids, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs, from fires and engine exhaust).

More than 1,000 air samples were collected from Sept. 18-Oct. 4 and focused on search-and-rescue personnel, heavy equipment operators, workers cutting metal beams and other occupations.

The CDC reported that virtually all sampled exposures, including exposure to asbestos, did not exceed permissible exposure limits set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, whose limits are far more stringent than actual "safe" exposure levels.

Of the 45 air samples analyzed for various metals, one from a personal breathing zone of a torch cutter exceeded the permissible exposure limit for cadmium. One worker was definitely overexposed, and two others were potentially overexposed to carbon monoxide.

While the study doesn't include data about exposures occurring before Sept. 18, this is hardly a reason to spend $11.4 million. The WTC, after all, is not the first fire or building collapse involving rescue workers.

Firefighters are frequently exposed to a variety of "toxic" dusts and chemical fumes. But the largest-ever study of firefighters published in May 2001 by National Cancer Institute researchers indicates firefighters do not have more cancer or worse health than non-firefighters.

The only possible justification for the contract would be if it somehow helped short-circuit personal injury lawyers intent on suing New York City.

Hundreds of firefighters, police and other rescue workers filed notice in February that they may sue New York City for $7.18 billion for failing to provide adequate respiratory protection equipment at Ground Zero. The notices allege fear of cancer and other ailments caused by the smoldering ruins.

One firefighter filed notice of a $10 million claim because he gets winded running up flights of stairs. "What if, five years down the road, we develop lung cancer or something like that?" he told The Associated Press.

It’s possible -- and we can only hope -- that data developed by Mt. Sinai researchers will enable the City to defend itself against such silly claims.

On the other hand, there’s some reason to be skeptical that Mt. Sinai will be an effective tool against the lawyers.

Mt. Sinai's Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine will be leading the examinations.

Irving Selikoff, now deceased, and his fearmongering minions at Mt. Sinai were the researchers who opened the floodgates of the junk science-fueled multi-billion dollar asbestos litigation that plagues us today.

Unfortunately, as every headache and cough is logged into the Mt. Sinai database for researchers-on-the-dole to tally and ponder, the Mt. Sinai contract will make the non-issue of Ground Zero worker health an issue for years to come.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of , an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).