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Danger in the Dust

By Rod Graham

It is 4 a.m. in New York City as four researchers from the School enter the site of the World Trade Center disaster on foot. Each is lugging from 50 to 90 pounds of air-monitoring equipment onto Ground Zero. In the dark, the tangled pile of wreckage takes on a distinctly hellish cast.

"Fires are still actively burning and the smoke is very intense," reports Alison Geyh, PhD. "In some pockets now being uncovered, they are finding molten steel." 

Geyh, an assistant scientist with the School's Department of Environmental Health Sciences (EHS), heads the team of scientists sent by the School in response to a request by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for a coordinated study of the disaster's potential health effects to those in the immediate environment. By attaching personal air monitors to the workers and by placing stationary air sampling pumps outside the periphery of Ground Zero, Geyh (pronounced "Guy") and her colleagues can determine the density of the particulate matter in the air, the size of those particles, and any short-term health effects to those at and around the site.

"This is an incredible situation," she reports. "The recovery and clean-up efforts are going on around the clock. Hundreds of people are at the site every day; and many of them have been there since Sept. 11. Workers at the site want to know what they are breathing and what to do to protect themselves."

Since the drivers and equipment operators are working in two 12-hour shifts, the researchers must start early and stay late. "None of the monitors can be left out overnight," says Geyh, "so around midnight we retrieve everything and take the equipment back to the hotel, where we recalibrate it before going to bed." The whole thing recommences at 4 a.m.

"People have been coming back really frazzled," says John Groopman, PhD. "It's clearly among the most energy-draining experiences of their lives." Groopman, Anna Baetjer Professor and chair of EHS, knows of no analogous research situation. "The fact that thousands of bodies are still hidden in the rubble makes the work very tense [and] changes the tenor of everything."

At every stage of the clean-up operation, plumes of dust and smoke are sent skyward. The Hopkins scientists are also gearing up to measure air quality in the nearby neighborhoods and to enter residences around Ground Zero to collect and study samples of the dust originally produced by the collapse, which has sifted into buildings throughout lower Manhattan.