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9/11 study: Multiple health woes persist for rescue workers

Ten years after two jets crashed into the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11 attacks, scientists are still learning about the long-term health effects of the disaster. 

Now researchers led by a team from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City have reported anew that physical and mental illnesses were very common across a large group of 9/11 emergency responders — and remained persistent for 10% to 30% of them a full nine years after the disaster.

The study, which followed 27,449 emergency workers, was released Thursday by the journal Lancet.  

More than 50,000 people are believed to have worked in rescue, recovery and cleanup operations at the World trade Center site. This group, which included police officers, firefighters, construction workers and municipal workers, were exposed to toxic smoke created by burning jet fuel, and a thick cloud of dangerous dust — a pulverized mix of glass fibers, asbestos, lead and other dangerous particles and chemicals — created when the towers collapsed. They were also placed under intense stress.

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The research team divided the volunteers who participated in the study into four groups, based on their exposure to the site and its debris.  Eighty-six percent were men, 57% were white and their median age on the day of the attacks was 38 years.

Over the nine years the scientists studied, 27.6% of the subjects were diagnosed with asthma (compared with a baseline before 9/11 of 10.5%), 42.3% with sinusitis (baseline 10.7%) and 39.3% with gastroesophageal reflux disease (baseline 5.8%).  

Among rescue and recovery workers, 27.5% had been diagnosed with depression (versus a 3% baseline) and 31.9% had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (versus a 1% baseline).  The authors reported that police officers were at lower risk for mental illness than other responders, perhaps because their training and experience better equipped them for dealing with traumatic situations.

Workers with the greatest exposure at ground zero had the highest incidence of multiple disorders.  Almost 10% of the rescue and recovery workers had asthma, sinusitis and gastroesophageal reflux disease; 18% had two out of the three ailments. Sixty-nine percent of rescue workers with ost-traumatic stress disorder had a physical condition as well, as did 70% of those with depression and 72% of those with panic disorder.

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“We now know that, in one of the largest WTC rescue and recovery cohorts, health effects have persisted for almost a decade,” wrote Matthew P. Mauer of the New York State Department of Health, in an accompanying editorial.  “These latest findings leave no doubt about the necessity of continuing health monitoring, treatment, and research for WTC rescue and recovery workers... [and] emphasize the critical importance of including the study of long-term health effects in any future disaster response plan.”

Read the Lancet’s 9/11 report here.


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