Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Senate eyes ‘Trade Center cough’
The Associated Press, February 11, 2002

   While crews at the World Trade Center site now use respirators, many of the first to respond right after Sept. 11 did not have them. Researchers say that is a key factor in respiratory illnesses reported since then. Amid conflicting reports about whether the air around New York’s Ground Zero is sickening firefighters and nearby residents, senators on Monday called in health and environmental officials to brief them on the latest studies. 
    "WE’VE BEEN hearing so many conflicting stories, and we have to find out exactly what the facts are," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., told NBC’s "Today" show. The Environmental Protection Agency has responsibility for outdoor air, but Clinton noted that other agencies, both local and federal, also have a role and that sorting out responsibility is part of the problem. "I think we need better coordination" among agencies, she said. "I don’t fault anybody."
    Officials from those agencies were expected to testify at a hearing Monday called by the Senate Environment Committee’s subcommittee on clean air. Clinton suggested a plan to take care of the health needs of any stricken workers and residents; adopt better cleanup standards; create a long-term health tracking system; and learn how to avoid similar problems in the future.
    Among the pollutants that escaped from the 1.2 million tons of debris at Ground Zero are asbestos, benzene, dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. These are linked to cancer, although experts said in many cases the exposures were low enough that the risk appears to be small. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, respiratory problems have been reported around Ground Zero, including what’s become called the "World Trade Center cough."
    A New York City Fire Department lung specialist said that of the 8,000 people examined so far, those who worked in the first days after the attacks showed the most serious respiratory symptoms. Overall, the specialist said, some 25 percent of the 11,500 firefighters who responded have reported some type of symptom, either shortness of breath, weakness, coughs or stress. A few hundred are on medical leave or working light duty as a result. And some 30 firefighters have started the retirement process, some because existing respiratory problems were made worse.
    Researchers say a major factor has been the failure of many rescue workers to wear respirators in the first days after the attacks. Fire officials acknowledge that there weren’t enough to go around early on, given that so many off-duty firefighters and volunteers responded. New York city could eventually face lawsuits. One attorney has filed legal papers to preserve the right of more than 700 firefighters with respiratory symptoms to sue the city later on.
    Cleanup workers have also reported health problems, and a mobile health clinic for day laborers opened for business last month. The clinic provides health screenings as well as properly fitting respirators to hundreds of workers, mainly immigrants without health insurance.

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