Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article|
Study Finds Lack of Data
on Health Effects of 9/11 Dust
By Marc Santora, New York Times,
September 8, 2004
Days before the third anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center, federal
agencies have yet to make a coordinated and comprehensive effort to study the health
effects of the debris that filled the air in the weeks after the attack, according to a
draft copy of a government study to be presented to Congress today. The study also shows
that there is still no federal treatment program for those suffering from related
As a result, the ability to ever fully answer even the most basic questions about the
health impact of that day on the public may have been seriously compromised.
While there has been a growing consensus since the attack that thousands of people may
have grown ill because of the toxic mix of dust, debris, smoke and chemicals that were
released when the towers collapsed, there is still no definitive answer to what exactly
was in the dust or to how many people suffered because of their exposure.
Moreover, there is no system in place that adequately tracks people's health with physical
examinations, provides treatment and can make authoritative determinations about the
According to a continuing study by the Government Accountability Office, the various
monitoring programs set up to address health concerns related to the trade center disaster
"vary in their methods for identifying those who may require treatment," and
"none of those programs are funded to provide treatment."
A copy of the study was provided to The New York Times by a government official who
believes that the federal government has not done enough.
The issue of the air quality in and around the area of the World Trade Center has been the
subject of intense debate since the first days after the attack, when the Environmental
Protection Agency declared that it was safe to return to the area.
Critics contend that in their eagerness to get the city moving again, and, in particular,
to reopen the New York Stock Exchange, officials underestimated the possible impact of the
contaminants that first billowed into the air and later settled in offices and homes
While limited monitoring programs have been set up to identify problems among emergency
personnel, construction workers and volunteers who spent day after day in the rubble,
little has been done to identify and assist others who may have been exposed to the dust,
according to politicians and health care experts in the New York region.
"No one is in charge," said Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a Manhattan
Democrat. Representatives Maloney and Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, are
leading the hearing today. Both have lobbied aggressively for more money.
The government study finds that 250,000 to 400,000 people who were visiting Lower
Manhattan; working, living or attending school there; or responding to the attack were
exposed to the dust.
The largest program set up to try to establish who might have been exposed is the World
Trade Center Health Registry, created two years after the attack. Many labor unions and
other groups discouraged people from signing up, expressing concern about how the data
would be used. One year after the registry was created, only 55,226 people had been
enrolled, according to the government study. The registry does not provide physical
examinations or formal treatment.
The most extensive health-related program set up to date is run by the Mount Sinai Center
for Occupational and Environmental Medicine, which received federal grant money to provide
physical examinations for police officers, firefighters and other emergency workers.
Again, this program does not involve treatment. And it has enough money for only about
12,000 screenings, according to an official at the center.
The official, Dr. Stephen M. Levin, co-director of the screening program, said so many
people showed up that the program did not have the resources to examine all of them.
"We are finding high rates of persistent respiratory problems," Dr. Levin said.
He noted that while medical experts have a sense of the health impact on volunteers and
workers at ground zero, little has been done to understand the wider health impact because
of a lack of federal money.
While some people have been able to rely on their own insurance to deal with health
problems, and many workers who suffered serious respiratory illnesses received workers'
compensation to help them deal with the costs, many others have run into resistance from
There are a handful of other monitoring programs, including some for firefighters and
state workers, but none are scheduled to run beyond 2009, the government study said.
"The duration of the monitoring programs may not be long enough to fully capture
critical information on health effects," the study found.
Dr. Levin and others worry that some health consequences, like cancer, may take years to
Still, many of the effects were recognized immediately. Within 48 hours of the attack, the
study says, the Fire Department found that about 90 percent of its 10,116 firefighters and
other emergency workers reported an acute cough. "Almost all F.D.N.Y. firefighters,
9,914, who had responded to the attack developed respiratory effects, and hundreds, about
380, had to end their firefighting careers due to W.T.C.-related respiratory
illness," the study reports.
It also cites other research that shows how screenings across a wide swath of those who
were in the downtown area in the days after the attack - including carpenters, police
officers and truck drivers - show similar respiratory problems.
The Environmental Protection Agency, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, warned
people working directly on the rubble to wear protective masks. But the agency maintained
that the dust that settled over a wider area included only low levels of asbestos and
generally was not harmful, a position that a spokeswoman said the agency continues to
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