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Most 9/11 recovery workers suffered lung ills

/ Source: The Associated Press

Nearly 70 percent of recovery workers who responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center have suffered lung problems, and high rates of lung “abnormalities” continue, a new health study released Tuesday shows.

Doctors at Mount Sinai Medical Center, which conducted the study, said the results prove that working in the toxic gray dust at ground zero made many people sick, and some will likely suffer the effects for the rest of their lives.

“There should no longer be any doubt about the health effects of the World Trade Center. Our patients are sick,” said Dr. Robin Herbert, co-director of the group that investigated the long-term effects from exposure to dust at the site.

The study, the largest involving health issues linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and is to be published Thursday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, just days before the fifth anniversary of the towers’ collapse.

'World Trade Center cough'

It focused mostly on what has been dubbed “World Trade Center cough,” which was little understood immediately after the attacks but has become a chief concern of health experts and advocates. It also found that lung ailments tended to be worst among those who arrived first at the site.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg later said there was still no direct proof that exposure at ground zero 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 at a separate event to announce the city’s own Sept. 11 health initiative.

Findings highlighted by the Mount Sinai study include:

  • Almost 70 percent of World Trade Center responders had new or worsened lung symptoms after the attacks.
  • Among responders who had no health symptoms before the attacks, 61 percent developed lung symptoms while working on the toxic pile.
  • One-third of those tested had abnormal lung function tests.

In lung function tests, responders had abnormalities at a rate double that expected in the general population. Those abnormalities persisted for months and in some cases years after the exposure, the study found.

The findings are based on medical exams conducted between July 2002 and April 2004 on 9,500 ground zero workers, including construction workers, law enforcers, firefighters, transit workers, volunteers and others.

The report comes as public concern over the fate of ground zero workers has risen. In a class action lawsuit against the city and its contractors, 8,000 workers and civilians blame Sept. 11 for sinusitis, cancers and other ailments they developed after the attacks.

The doctors were joined by New York politicians who prodded the federal government to extend funding for research and treatment programs. They also charged that environmental officials failed to issue necessary warnings about the health danger.

“Our government was not telling us the truth,” said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. “The air was not safe to breathe. It was obvious that the air was hard to see through, let alone breathe.”

Dr. John Howard, who was appointed by the Bush administration in February to coordinate ground zero health programs, said the findings buttress earlier work done by city researchers.

Tracking long-term effects

Gov. George Pataki signed legislation last month that expanded benefits for workers who became sick after toiling at ground zero, but Bloomberg objected to the laws, saying they were unfunded and would cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars.

Bloomberg said the city’s plan being unveiled Tuesday would “build on our track record of supporting those who supported us in the months after 9/11,” according to an op-ed piece by the mayor in the Daily News.

The city-run World Trade Center Health Registry is tracking the long-term effects on 71,000 people, including those who lived or worked in lower Manhattan at the time of the attacks and the months of cleanup.

Just last week, New York City health officials issued long-awaited guidelines to help doctors detect and treat Sept. 11-related illnesses — medical advice considered crucial for hundreds of ground zero workers now scattered across the United States.