Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Asthma plagues Ground Zero heroes
By Robert Bazell, NBC News, January 8, 2002

    NEW YORK —  We’ve all heard the tragic number — 343 New York City firefighters died on Sept. 11. But now doctors are discovering lasting health problems, especially lung damage, among the thousands who joined the rescue effort and survived — and the findings have consequences for thousands of others who were in or near the World Trade Center that day.
    VINNY FORRAS is a firefighter who responded to the World Trade Center. When he gathers with co-workers, the talk is not just of the memories of Sept. 11 but of their health today.         "Shortness of breath, very dry cough, a sensation of drowning," Forras said, describing his symptoms.
    So far, New York City firefighters have gotten the closest medical scrutiny of those at the disaster site and officials see a new tragedy beginning to unfold. "Clearly we’ve lost more than 343 firefighters to the World Trade Center event when we take into account all the other medical problems that may develop," said Dr. David Prezant, a lung specialist at the New York Fire Department.
    Prezant said the biggest health danger occurred right after the building collapsed, when a cloud of concrete, glass, metal and other substances known as particulate matter invaded people’s lungs.  "Particulate matter has incredible consequences to your lungs. It can cause asthma. It can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, emphysema. It can also cause an increase in heart attacks," he said.

WashPost: Breathing fear in New York
    So far there have been no heart attacks, but the department has examined more than 7,000 of its 11,000 members and one-quarter complain of difficulty breathing. In fact, testing of those among the first on the scene finds that one in four do have asthma — inflammation of the lungs.
    What is the medical future for those who have lung problems now? Experts admit they simply don’t know. All the firefighters are being offered treatments and doctors expect most will get better, but a certain percentage are expected to suffer severe lung damage for life. And doctors say all of the tens of thousands of people in the area that day — including office workers, residents and school children — should be watching for problems and seeking medical help if they strike. "Whether it’s sinus congestion and pain, sore throat, hoarseness of voice, chest tightness, persistent cough. Those kinds of symptoms warrant evaluation," said Dr. Steven Levin of Mount Sinai Medical Center.
    Vinny Forras and many other firefighters are worrying about a future with lung disease — and health officials say tens of thousands more could be at long-term risk.

Robert Bazell's HealthBeat - Robert Bazell is the chief science correspondent for NBC News.     

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