New York Daily News

Health of 9-11 heroes at risk

Illnesses may be worse than previously thought


Wednesday, September 6th 2006

THE FEARLESS MEN and women who toiled in the smoky, contaminated air at Ground Zero have been sicker than expected and many of them will need lifelong medical treatment, a sobering new study shows.

Nearly 70% of those who responded to the smoldering pile suffered new or worsened lung problems after 9/11 and many are not getting better, according to the study unveiled yesterday by Mount Sinai Medical Center.

"There should no longer be any doubt about the health effects of the World Trade Center. Our patients are sick and will need ongoing health monitoring and treatment for the rest of their lives," said Dr. Robin Herbert, co-director of the team at Mount Sinai that has been caring for workers exposed to the toxic stew at the site.

Among nonsmokers, 28% of responders had abnormal lung function tests - twice as many as in the general population. The study was based on detailed exams of 9,442 of the estimated 40,000 Ground Zero rescue and recovery workers between July 2002 and April 2004.

The study also found:

One in five had low lung capacity - five times the normal level.

Among responders who had no symptoms of poor health before 9/11, 61% developed lung problems while working in The Pit.

Lung ailments were generally worst among those who arrived soon after the disaster.

"This study, I hope, puts to rest any doubt about what happened to those who were exposed," said Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Clinton said the new research also shows government officials were too hasty in reassuring New Yorkers about air quality in lower Manhattan immediately after 9/11.

"We quickly learned our government was not telling us the truth. The air was not safe to breathe," she said. "It was obvious the air was hard to see through, let alone hard to breathe."

But at his own news conference yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg said there was still no direct proof that Ground Zero exposure caused the illnesses.

"I haven't seen the Mount Sinai study, but I don't believe that you can say specifically a particular problem came from this particular event," Bloomberg said.

But other elected officials said the report - the largest to date investigating WTC health risks - makes it harder for the government to deny a link.

"There has been a great betrayal of the heroes of 9/11 by the federal, state and city governments," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). "Government must stop denying what is now clear from this study."

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said the overwhelming evidence should persuade authorities to provide medical care for the heroes who helped the city get back on its feet.

"That is the least we can do ... to show the commitment and respect for those who sacrificed their lives, put their lives on the line to save the lives of others," she said. "The heroes of 9/11 deserve nothing less."

The report - to be published tomorrow in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives - comes just days before the fifth anniversary of the WTC attacks and in the wake of recent hard-hitting editorials by the Daily News decrying the lack of care for Ground Zero workers.

John Graham, 44, an emergency medical worker who logged hundreds of hours in The Pit after 9/11, now suffers from serious respiratory problems that have forced him to quit his job.

"It's prolonged agony," Graham said of his failing health.

Graham said he hoped the report would persuade officials to be more generous with workers' compensation claims.

"If I give up hope, I give up everything," he said.

But John Sferazo, an ironworker and president of the Heroes Helping Heroes advocacy group, said he is skeptical that government will loosen its purse strings for Ground Zero heroes.

"If they did care, would it take five years?" Sferazo asked angrily.

Graphic: Key findings of the Mount Sinai study:

69% of emergency workers at the WTC had new or worsened respiratory symptoms after spending time at Ground Zero.

61% of the first responders who showed no signs of respiratory problems before 9/11 developed symptoms while at Ground Zero.

59% showed signs of new respiratory problems or their symptoms got worse at the time they were tested.

84% of rescue workers in the study showed signs of upper respiratory illnesses such as sinusitis, laryngitis and vocal cord dysfunction.