WTC Rescuers Not Exposed to Toxics

Worker exposures to air contaminants at the World Trade Center disaster site generally did not exceed safety standards, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the good news may not put the kibosh on threatened lawsuits from rescue workers.

The 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.

Still, the study doesn't include data about exposures occurring before Sept. 18. The absence of exposure data from Sep. 11-18 may provide wiggling room for slimy personal injury lawyers.

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.

There's no doubt many rescue workers suffered some transient respiratory impairment caused by dust. Some may still suffer. In rare cases, the impairments may be permanently disabling to some degree.

But fears of cancer lack a factual basis. Though all sorts of particulate matter and fumes were released from the rubble, the sorts of exposures experienced by the rescue workers aren't known to cause cancer.

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.

In any event, firefighters injured and disabled in the line of duty aren't forgotten. FDNY members may receive 75 percent of their annual salary tax-free for life, and may also file for Social Security benefits.

Apparently though, some rescue workers figure to get more than just what they're due. Why not put a lawsuit in front of a jury that might have a hard time turning down Sept. 11 heroes?

It's alleged the city unreasonably failed rescue workers. But should the city be liable for not foreseeing the collapse of the WTC and the attendant need of extra respiratory equipment for the massive rescue worker response? Should rescue work have been halted until optimal equipment was available for all?

An FDNY spokesman acknowledges respirators were in short supply on Sept. 11. Once they were available, though, "guys had them around their necks and weren't wearing them."

Many firefighters probably wouldn't think of suing the city but for encouragement from lawyers angling for a percentage of whatever sums can be milked via the FDNY's reputation.

One law firm that filed several hundred notices on behalf of rescue workers specializes in shaking down both the city and insurance companies in the name of firefighters, and brags about its multimillion-dollar success on its Web site.

The CDC report should be reassuring. The firefighters should consider turning their hoses on their flaming lawyers.

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).

Respond to the Writer