updated 9/12/2007 2:43:59 PM ET 2007-09-12T18:43:59

Doctors treating sickened emergency workers in New York after the Sept. 11 attacks offered Congress a detailed diagnosis Wednesday of the ailments still affecting thousands, but warned that there is no way to determine how many more may become afflicted with life-threatening illnesses.

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Dr. Philip Landrigan of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine described three months of recent medical treatment to a House of Representatives' panel examining how many of those who toiled on the toxic debris pile are still sick — or may get sick.

Thousands of people "are still suffering," Landrigan said a day after the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Their ailments range from runny noses to laryngitis to lung disease, he said.

"Respiratory illness, psychological distress and financial devastation have become a new way of life for many," he told the House Education and Labor Committee. He advocated leaving Sept. 11-related medical programs in place to try to determine how many workers might develop long-term diseases.

Patricia Clark, a regional official with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said workers who were exposed to toxins in the first 48 hours after the attacks were hit with an "incredible assault" on their health. Still, she defended her agency's air sampling, which found little evidence of dangerously high levels of asbestos and other contaminants.

The figures offered Wednesday further define the medical problems found by a 2006 Mount Sinai study, which said 70 percent of the workers suffered new or worsened respiratory problems after their exposure to the debris of the World Trade Center.

Landrigan offered new specifics of the most prevalent symptoms among the police officers, firefighters, construction workers and volunteers examined.

Between April and June of this year, doctors in the Sept. 11 workers health program overseen by Mount Sinai saw 2,323 patients.

They found:

  • Lower respiratory problems in 40 percent of patients. Asthma and asthma-like reactive airways disease were found in 30 percent. Smaller portions of patients had chronic cough — 7 percent — or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — 5 percent.
  • Upper respiratory conditions in 59 percent. The most common condition was runny nose, in 51 percent of the workers, and chronic sinusitis, in about a fifth of them.
  • Mental health problems, the most common being post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, in 36 percent of patients.

Landrigan said it is still unclear how many of those patients will continue to experience such symptoms, or how many may develop new diseases like cancer many years after their exposure.

Lingering Sept. 11-related illnesses — and deaths of some first responders years after the attacks — have led to calls in Congress for a federal program to fund long-term health programs for those workers.

So far, the government has paid for piecemeal screening and treatment of emergency personnel, construction workers and volunteers, but advocates want such programs expanded to include lower Manhattan residents, students and tourists.

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