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Daily News

Sick Lungs, Strong Proof: Post 9/11 Air Wasn't Safe

Juan Gonzalez    
   
 
Christie Johnston
  Julio Roig is one of many New Yorkers who have developed health problems following Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

June 22, 2004—After the hijacked planes struck the twin towers on 9/11, Julio Roig was among thousands of downtown workers who poured into the narrow streets from nearby buildings to watch the raging fires.

Like many on that terrible day, Roig, a project manager for an engineering consulting firm, was soon caught in the ferocious dust storm unleashed by the collapse of the first tower.

Nearly three years later, Roig suffers from granulomatous pulmonary disease, a severe scarring of the lung. The disease has so reduced his breathing capacity that his pulmonologist recently advised him he may need a lung transplant.

Roig, however, is one of the few people to demonstrate a direct link between his illness and toxic dust from Ground Zero.

His doctor, Benjamin Safirstein, a pulmonologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center, concluded in a peer-reviewed scientific article published in Chest Journal in January 2003 that "exposure to dust at the WTC accounted for his illness."

Safirstein was not simply guessing.

Roig, then 37, had returned to work in lower Manhattan on Oct. 3, and within two weeks he was suffering from shortness of breath, wheezing, severe cough and constant body aches.

In November 2001, chest X-rays and a CAT scan revealed numerous abnormal nodules in Roig's lungs, but none of the doctors he initially consulted could explain their origin. A chest X-ray taken a year earlier during a regular checkup had detected no problems.

Roig eventually went to Safirstein, who advised him that only a lung biopsy could explain the source of the problem. Safirstein proceeded to collapse Roig's lungs and cut through his back to remove tissue samples.

Safirstein then reported that an electron microscopy scan of the tissue and other tests had revealed "large quantities of silicates" in Roig's lungs - the kind of silicates found in World Trade Center dust.

"The analysis came out pretty negative," Safirstein said last week. "We confirmed these strange granuloma," a form of pulmonary fibrosis.

Roig's worst symptoms were reduced substantially with months of steroid treatments, but the scarring of his lungs remains. Meanwhile, his breathing capacity has steadily worsened.

"He's declined about 20% over the past three years," Safirstein said. "If he continues to decline, then we have a serious concern."

And Roig may not be the only downtown worker or resident to suffer long-term health problems from WTC dust.

"All bets are off," Safirstein said. "We may not find the answers for years to come. These environmental disasters give us more information than any bench research can."

As for Roig, he's furious that federal and city officials advised New Yorkers that downtown's air was safe to breathe after 9/11.

"They should have declared the whole area a Superfund site and cleaned it up completely," he said.

Meanwhile, he's still battling with the federal government for adequate compensation. After applying for help from a compensation board set up by Congress, he was offered less than $50,000 for pain and suffering and is appealing the decision.

If he ends up needing a lung transplant because of that terrible day, Roig figures, his government owes him and his family something more.

jgonzalez@edit.nydailynews.com

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