Scientists Unsure About Impact of 9/11 Dust

As the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, PA, is commemorated, debate still rages about the health legacy of the clouds of dust that enveloped the New York City site.  Like many New Yorkers who spent time near the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center, Lorraine Ashman needs to take a deep breath before listing all the health problems that have afflicted her over the past decade.  She’s had bronchiolitis and a persistent cough that lasted for months.  Then there were nine sinus infections.  She’s had pneumonia, developed immune system problems, vitamin deficiencies and gluten sensitivity.  She had acid reflux that damaged the lining of her esophagus.  “I’ve just been sick non-stop,” she said.  “Being on antibiotics 12 months out of the year is an insane way to live…I take 17 pills in the morning and six at night.”  Ashman places the responsibility on the sooty air she inhaled in the two months she worked as a volunteer near ground zero. 

Science isn’t so certain. After 10 years of intense research, only a few questions about the myriad of health conditions that people suspect are related to the gray dust that fell on the city when the trade center collapsed. Although victims have blamed the dust for everything from rashes to skin cancer, the list of illnesses tentatively linked to the disaster is surprisingly short. Researchers have confirmed increased asthma rates among people exposed to the dust. Many have been diagnosed with chronic sinus problems, or inflammation of their nasal passages that makes their noses run constantly and causes a drippy cough. Many have developed chronic heartburn resulting from a stomach acid condition known as Gastroesophageal reflux disease. Doctors who treat ground zero workers and volunteers believe that exposure to the dust, comprised of tons of pulverized concrete, glass, and other building materials, may have irritated some people’s upper respiratory systems so much that many still haven’t recovered. “We think it has set up a cycle of chronic irritation,” said Dr. Michael Crane, director of the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program at Mt. Sinai Medical Center. “It’s a very disturbing condition.  It keeps people up at night.”

Fortunately, according to Dr. Crane, those symptoms are also highly controllable.  Patients use antihistamine and steroid sprays and a saline rinse to ease their discomfort.  Asthma can be controlled through medication and quick-relief inhalers.  Some have undergone surgery to relieve sinus problems.  A study of 42,000 people in a World Trade Center health registry found that, they have had a better mortality rate than the public at large.  According to the study, 790 people in the had died as of 2009, approximately 43 percent fewer than expected.  Researchers said that is probably because the study group likely was healthier than the general public before 9/11.

 The average age for a first responder at ground zero on 9/11 was 38, which means that a majority is currently nearing 50, an age when health problems begin to emerge.  Some things about the illnesses that are occurring puzzle scientists.  Many of the people now experiencing sinus problems and asthma-like symptoms felt fine for years after their exposure to the dust.  They weren’t coughing and could run up a flight of stairs without getting winded.  Then, often quite suddenly, their conditions came out of nowhere.

Writing in Reason, Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., heads its Risk Analysis Division, notes that “At stake are billions of dollars from the controversial James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which set aside money for 9/11 rescue workers and survivors with health claims.  The Zadroga Act allows people who worked, lived, or attended school near Ground Zero to claim compensation for a broad range of diseases, from asthma to depression, without a requirement to demonstrate that the diseases were caused by dust from the terror site.  But the bill, which came with a hefty $4.3 billion price tag, passed only after proponents agreed to the utterly reasonable requirement that compensation for cancer be justified by a causal link.”

Researchers with New York City’s health department who studied death rates among 42,000 people potentially exposed to trade center dust found no evidence of a spike in fatalities.  They learned that the 790 deaths among people in the study group were about 43 percent lower than the general mortality rate for New Yorkers.  They also tended to no have suffered deadly respiratory ailments.  Scientists wrote off those findings as too premature to have significant meaning.  Because the attacks happened in a business district and involved people who were healthy enough to work, the study group was almost certainly healthier than the general public, said New York City’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley.  “I wouldn’t interpret it as that the World Trade Center has somehow helped people live longer,” Farley said.  Additionally, the types of toxins released in the trade center disaster typically take decades to result in deaths, not the few years covered in the study.

Donald Berry, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, said there is “no evidence that living or working in the former shadow of the World Trade Center increases one’s risk of anything.”  “Occupational hazards are real,” he said.  “An extreme example is the plight of asbestos workers. But occupational risks accrue over years of exposure.  With the exception of a nuclear explosion or meltdown, it’s difficult for any single event to cause an increase in cancer or in mortality.”

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