Paul Lioy, Scientist Who Analyzed 9/11 Dust and Its Health Effects, Dies at 68

Margalit Fox New York Times 

Paul J. Lioy, an environmental scientist widely known for his analysis of the dust spawned by the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and for his studies of its health effects over time, died on Wednesday after collapsing at Newark Liberty International Airport. He was 68.

The cause had not been determined, his wife, Jean Lioy, said.

Dr. Lioy (pronounced LEE-oy) was an internationally renowned authority on exposure science, a field concerned chiefly with pollutants and toxins that straddles environmental science and occupational health. He was the author of “Dust: The Inside Story of Its Role in the September 11th Aftermath,” a book for a general readership published in 2010.

At his death he was a professor of environmental and occupational health of the Rutgers University School of Public Health, in Piscataway, N.J., as well as the department’s deputy director for government relations.

From his home in Cranford, N.J., Dr. Lioy could see the plumes of dust that rose from the ruins of the trade center towers on September 11, 2001. A million tons of dust would rain down on Lower Manhattan.

Once his initial horror at the spectacle subsided, the scientist in him began to wonder just what was in that dust.

“It was unprecedented in terms of the complex characteristics of the materials released,” Dr. Lioy told The Asbury Park Press in 2011.

He was one of the first scientists to gather samples from the scene, arriving to find a fluffy gray dust so profuse, The New York Times reported, that he and his colleagues simply scooped it from the windshields of nearby cars and secured it in Teflon bags.

“It had a weird texture and color to it,” Dr. Lioy told The Times in 2005.

The samples were dispatched for laboratory analysis. The results indicated the presence of elements that included chromium, aluminum, barium, titanium, mercury and lead; jet-fuel components; cellulose from paper and cotton; particles of wood, plastic, glass, asbestos and concrete; and organic matter that Professor Lioy, with circumspection and great tenderness, described as containing “everything we hold dear.”

The findings allayed a potential health concern — asbestos-related illnesses — while illuminating an actual one: the persistent cough and other respiratory symptoms developed by some police officers, firefighters, construction workers and residents.

“In the first 48 hours, the government was concerned about asbestos being the primary threat,” Dr. Lioy explained a decade after the attacks in an interview on the Rutgers website. “But it was not. Asbestos exposure is a long-term problem. Once the ‘World Trade Center cough’ started appearing, we realized it wasn’t caused by asbestos.”

Three things, he continued, caused the cough.

“First, cement dust was very alkaline — the pH was above 10,” he said. “That irritated the linings of the lungs. Second, glass fibers got stuck in people’s upper airways, like wooden logs in a narrow stream. That trapped the cement particles and enhanced the irritation. And there were very coarse particles that comprised the vast quantity of the dust mass.”

Paul James Lioy was born on May 27, 1947, in Passaic, N.J. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Montclair State College, as it was then known, followed by a master’s degree in the field from Auburn University in Alabama and master’s and doctoral degrees in environmental science from Rutgers.

As a researcher, Dr. Lioy was associated for many years with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which was largely absorbed into Rutgers in 2013. He was previously affiliated with New York University and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

Over the years his other work included research on oil spills, ozone pollution and household pesticides. Dr. Lioy was part of a team of scientists that in 1988 found no connection between the environment around the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N.J., and various cancers. The study was undertaken after four members of the New York Giants football team developed cancer within an eight-year span.

Besides his wife, the former Jean Yonone, whom he married in 1971, Professor Lioy’s survivors include his mother, also named Jean Lioy; a son, Jason; a sister, Mary Jean Giannini; and two grandchildren.

His other books include “Exposure Science: Basic Principles and Applications” (2014), written with Clifford Weisel.

Even a decade after September 11, Dr. Lioy and his colleagues faced empirical questions about the long-term health consequences of the attacks.

“We understand the respiratory effects of the disaster, but cancer is still a big unknown,” he said in the Rutgers interview. “At this point, there are no truly quantifiable higher incidences of cancer attributed to 9/11. Still, we must remember that in the general population, about one in four Americans contracts a form of that disease. So the data will have to be examined carefully going forward.”


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