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On Manhattan, risk still in air
The poor air quality around the fallen buildings of the World Trade Center complex poses health concerns for New Yorkers, public health experts said Wednesday.
With worries of dangerously high asbestos content in the air, rescue teams and Manhattan residents are being urged to wear masks or respirators if they have to be outdoors or, better, to stay inside and keep doors and windows shut tightly.
Officials also warned that many more people are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Those who personally witnessed the hijacked airliners crashing into the towers, people falling from high-level windows and the collapse of the buildings are more likely to develop symptoms of anxiety and depression and sleep problems.
Because the horrific images were displayed repeatedly on television and in the news media, people elsewhere also are at risk, said Dr. Susan Scrimshaw, dean of the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health.
On Wednesday the National Institute of Mental Health issued an advisory about post-traumatic stress disorder to all state and local health departments, as well as to the nation's schools of public health.
"It is hard enough for adults, but we've got a lot of children who are just reeling from this. Everyone to different degrees, depending on how they were affected by this, is experiencing this," Scrimshaw said.
In New York, the more immediate physical threat is posed by the dust, fumes and toxicity of the clouds of material that enveloped thousands of people near the Trade Center towers, said Dr. Alan Leff, a lung specialist at the University of Chicago.
Especially vulnerable to short-term or long-term damage are senior citizens and people who have asthma, emphysema or other respiratory conditions, he said. People who were able to flee quickly and limited their exposure to the dust cloud, he added, are not likely to suffer respiratory problems.
Teresa Lee, director of public information for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in San Francisco, advised residents to "stay indoors and keep windows and doors shut; that should keep most of the particulate and fibers out."
Health experts said there is little risk of infections, such as typhoid, spreading from the thousands of bodies believed buried in the rubble.
"There's always a risk of some kind of airborne contamination, but these risks tend to be pretty low for this type of situation," said Dennis Gault, a spokesman for the Chicago Fire Department.
Richard Lee, a senior industrial hygienist for San Francisco, said concerns over a polluted water supply also are minimal.
"Anytime there are breaks in the sewer line, there is a possibility it could back up into the regular water supply," he said, but "there are back-flow preventers to deal with that problem."
Firefighters and others exposed to bodies and body parts generally wear protective clothing, including eye protection and heavy gloves, to avoid contact with body fluids, Gault said. "You never know what you might be exposed to, but the hepatitis virus and HIV are the biggest concerns," he said.
One of the warning signs of post-traumatic stress disorder in children is their becoming quiet and withdrawn. Other signs that may affect anyone include tremendous fatigue, loss of appetite, flashbacks of the scene, nightmares, frightening thoughts, emotional numbness irritability and outbursts of anger.