Hair, Glass, Metal, and Carpet: What Was In the Air at Ground Zero

By Veronique Greenwood | September 7, 2011 1:15 pm

Crystals of smashed cement, the perfect size for lodging in lungs,
made up most of the dust rising from the World Trade Center.

When ten million of tons of building, mixed with 91,000 liters of jet fuel, collapse into a smoking heap, an incredible variety of pulverized materials rise into the air. Though no one took samples of the plume that rose up from the World Trade Center on 9/11, samples of the dust that filtered down in the following days and gas emanating from the pile have given a glimpse of what rescue workers and others breathed in: heavy metals from computers, cellulose from paper, shards of metal and stone from the buildings’ walls, calcium carbonate from the tons of smashed cement, fibers from rugs, fragments of glass and burned hair.

The NYC EPA’s conflicting reports in the days after the disaster—air pollution levels seemed safe, yet rescue workers should wear bulky respirators—appear to have contributed to the ongoing public health crisis of “World Trade Center cough,” lung disease, and increased cancer rates in rescuers and those who worked nearby. In an interactive feature, David Biello at Scientific American shows microscopic mugshots of the culprits and describes what scientists have gleaned about the environmental effects of 9/11 in the last ten years.

Read more at SciAm.

Image courtesy of the EPA, via SciAm

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Health & Medicine
  • Baramos

    Clearly first responders don’t deserve free treatment for the diseases incurred from breathing this toxic mixture. Thank you, Republicans, for showing us the way!

  • Addison DeWitt

    Yes – the cloud was simply “pulverized office building” – which includes pulverized office workers…

  • vel

    Rather a peculiarly delicate thing to mention only “burned hair”. There was a lot more than that.

    and I wonder how much asbestos was still in those buildings.

  • Anton

    The 9/11 workers and first-responders are often left out of the narrative of continued trauma and suffering that occurred almost 10 years ago. It’s great to see this topic discussed. Democracy Now reported on this issue in an interview with investigative reporter Anthony DePalma and Joel Kupferman, Executive director of the New York Environmental Law & Justice Project:

  • Volunteer Female FireFighter

    The responders on that terrible day do deserve to be treated for free, for the fact that they helped save more lives that day than what would have been saved if they were not there. You should support the firemen in your area and any area in the world, for they can save you from just about anything. Get some respect man.

  • Dave C.

    Our lungs are designed to handle inhaled junk like dust, dirt, hair, and smoke throughout a lifetime. However they were not designed to handle a sudden and massive influx of these sorts of things all at one time. God bless the first responders. Remember to protect your lungs everyone.

  • hat_eater

    I wonder how much asbestos was still in those buildings
    Plenty – the first 40 floors of the north tower structure had fireproofing made of it:

  • Iain

    Asbestos. Not in the article but definitely in the buildings. Lots and lots of it.


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