Volume 17 • Issue 17 | SEPTEMBER 17 - 23, 2004

W.T.C. health studies discussed at forum

By Sascha Brodsky

Three years after the World Trade Center attack, evidence is mounting that significant health effects plague those who lived or worked near the disaster, researchers reported at a conference last weekend.

In the months after the attacks, concerns grew about the health consequences of exposures sustained by persons involved in the rescue and recovery response. In addition to the estimated 10,000 Fire Department of New York personnel, an estimated 30,000 other workers and volunteers potentially were exposed to numerous psychological stressors, environmental toxins, and other physical hazards. Sunday’s event was entitled the 9/11 World Trade Center Dust Health Effects Conference and was sponsored by New York University Medical Center.

One past study discussed at the conference found that babies born to women who were pregnant and living near the World Trade Center when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred were smaller and had shorter gestation periods than those whose mothers lived elsewhere in New York.

The cause of the difference in newborns is not known, but doctors speculated at the conference that the babies might have been affected in the womb by exposure to toxic dust and fumes wafting from ground zero, by their mothers’ psychological stress or perhaps a combination of the two.

Babies delivered after the attack weighed 5.3 ounces less and were a third of an inch shorter. The study separated women into early and late stages of pregnancy at the time of the attack. Women in the early stages delivered their babies earlier, by 3.6 days on average, than women in later stages of pregnancy — regardless of how far they lived or worked from the W.T.C. The babies also had slightly smaller head circumferences, a result of shorter gestation. The scientists said that the differences were not life threatening and do not mean the newborns had medical problems.

Dr. William Rom, a professor at NYU Medical Center and an organizer of the conference, said the differences in birth weight were “statistically significant.”

Another study discussed at the conference found that workers at the World Trade Center site developed respiratory problems that lasted more than a year after the attacks.

Dr. Stephen Levin of Mount Sinai Medical School said that many of those who helped with cleanup and recovery efforts at ground zero still have breathing problems associated with their exposure to the site.

“These preliminary findings of the WTC Screening Program demonstrate that large numbers of workers and volunteers suffered persistent, substantial effects on their respiratory and psychological health as a result of their efforts,” Levin said.

Problems noted in the study include asthma, sinusitis, constant coughing and stuffy nose, facial pains, chest tightness, wheezing and shortness of breath.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the study is the first to show that workers at the World Trade Center site suffered respiratory symptoms over such a long period.

“These findings suggest that specialized medical monitoring programs for rescue and recovery workers that identify potential problems and make appropriate referrals for treatment should be part of all emergency preparedness plans,” said Dr. John Howard, director of the C.D.C.’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). “Early provision of respiratory and other protective equipment is also crucial for preventing physical and mental health effects.”

The study analyzed data from 1,138 of the rescue workers between July and December 2002. Nearly three out of four of the workers reported upper respiratory symptoms that were newly developed or made worse by working at ground zero. Three out of five reported lower respiratory symptoms associated with their work at the site.

Dr. Rom said that the findings of the respiratory study were “surprising because you primarily think of this type of exposure just causing irritation.”

About a dozen of the spectators at the conference said they were Downtown residents who were concerned about their health.

John Reynolds, a Tribeca resident, said that he still suffered from a persistent cough that he said began when the cloud of dust from the disaster tumbled over him.

“I’m here for answers,” Reynolds said. “So far, I haven’t found any. I’ve been to six doctors and they all throw up their hands and say they just don’t know what caused my cough.”

Senator Hillary Clinton was scheduled to speak at the conference but did not attend due to her husband’s recent surgery.

In a statement made by a representative of the senator at the conference, Clinton said she is working to amend the homeland security appropriations bill that is currently being acted on by the Senate to provide an additional $4.5 million in mental health counseling services for New York’s firefighters, police officers and their families.

“As I reflect on the last three years, I think that we have made significant progress,” Clinton’s statement said. “But the progress has been slow, and much remains to be done. That was the basic conclusion that [the General Accounting Office] reached in its testimony before the House of Representatives last week. And that is the message in the new scientific studies that have come out recently, such as the Mt. Sinai study of rescue workers that was published last week in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention journal.”

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