9/11 Responders, Workers Still Suffer an Excess of Illnesses

Studies found many had some kind of physical, mental health problem nine years later

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By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Sept. 1 (HealthDay News) -- First responders and workers at the World Trade Center site right after 9/11 continue to suffer an excess of physical and mental ills, including a possible increase in their risk for cancer.

Many rescue and recovery workers had some kind of physical or mental health problem nine years after their heroic efforts at the site, according to one of three studies appearing in a special Sept. 1 issue of The Lancet.

And people who were either working or living in lower Manhattan at the time of the attack had a 10 percent increased risk in cancer. Although it's unusual to see a spike in cases so soon, the authors of this second study do believe that the increased incidence is likely a result of carcinogens in the dust that filled the air after the attacks on the World Trade Towers.

"At the 10-year point after 9/11, we're still seeing a great deal of persistent disease in the first responders, the police, the firefighters, the construction workers," said Dr. Philip Landrigan, senior author of the first study and chairman of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York City. Landrigan's department houses the Mount Sinai WTC health program.

Landrigan's study of more than 27,000 rescue and recovery workers found that almost 28 percent had asthma, 42 percent had sinusitis and 39 percent had gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Both the respiratory and digestive problems are the result of the dust cloud emanating from the disaster site that entered people's airways, causing inflammation and scarring, and burned its way into the esophagus, the study concluded.

"These people swallowed that very, very caustic dust which . . . was extremely alkaline. It was described as inhaling Drano in powdered form," Landrigan said.

Dr. Stacey L. Silvers, an otolaryngologist with Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, said she was actually surprised the percentages weren't higher.

"The numbers are obviously very impressive but with the exposures to such damaging stimuli, I'm really surprised more people are not suffering," she said.

But the fact that the respiratory ailments are persisting is a "worrisome sign," Landrigan said. "It may be the forerunning of chronic lung disease in the future."

Silvers said that people who haven't already had symptoms are unlikely to develop them this far out in time, but it's possible that who have had lingering symptoms might see more problems later on, such as lung or stomach cancer.

Police officers had a lower occurrence of depression (7 percent) and PTSD (9.3 percent) than other rescue workers, some 28 percent of whom suffered from depression, 32 percent from PTSD and 21 percent from panic disorder.

The second study found that, seven years after 9/11, male firefighters who were at the World Trade Center after it was attacked had a 10 percent increased risk of cancer compared with the general population and a 19 percent increased risk compared to firefighters who hadn't been sent there.

The fact that firefighters who hadn't been exposed to the toxic dust and fumes from the World Trade Center had a lower incidence of cancer than the general population was to be expected, given that these individuals tend to be in better health than the average man or woman.

Although there seemed to be a slight trend toward increased risk in certain types of cancer, including stomach, colon and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, people who had been near the WTC disaster had a 58 percent decreased risk of lung cancer.

Again, this may be due to the good health of firefighters to begin with. The nine firefighters who did develop lung cancer were all smokers.

A third study found that rescue workers and civilians alike who had been in lower Manhattan on 9/11 actually had a 43 percent lower death rate than New York City residents in general.

One explanation could be that most illnesses likely to cause death take longer to develop. Another is the fact that most of the participants in the study had jobs and employed people tend generally to be in better health.