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Ground zero clean-up crew developed cough
By Steve Mitchell, UPI Medical Correspondent, in Washington, August 23, 2002

    BALTIMORE, Aug. 23 (UPI) -- Workers who were involved in trucking debris away from Ground Zero at the World Trade Center attack site reported coughing and other respiratory problems that may have been due to exposure to asbestos and other toxic chemicals, scientists reported Friday. Whether this will lead to chronic health problems remains unclear. "The jury is out as to just how serious this is," Patrick Breysse, a professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who was involved in the project, told United Press International.
    "There were significant increases in respiratory symptoms that we hope will resolve themselves, but we need to follow them in the future to make sure they don't progress into some serious problems," Breysse said.
    One of the main concerns now is documenting the types of chemicals and vapors the workers were exposed to, he said. This will be useful "if five years down the road there is Gulf War syndrome-type of illness that these workers develop," he said, referring to the neurological symptoms and other health conditions some Gulf War veterans developed and which some people have attributed to exposure to nerve agents and other chemicals present during the war.
    In December, the researchers measured lung function of the 6,000-7,000 truck drivers and other workers who hauled away debris from the site and had them answer a questionnaire pertaining to their respiratory health. "Forty percent said they coughed all the time while they were working at the site compared with only 7 percent who said they coughed prior to working at the site," Breysse said.
    There did not seem to be any extensive impairment in lung function, however. Measurements of environmental contaminants such as asbestos and lead indicated they were at low levels that would not pose concern individually, but Breysse noted, "We don't know what happens when someone is exposed to these all at once."
    There could be a synergistic effect involving low levels of multiple chemicals in the environment that could cause health problems, he said. In addition, he said the study only included truck drivers who worked at the site intermittently. There is no data on workers who stayed at the site continuously and could have accumulated higher levels of exposure.
    Chip Hughes, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences' Worker Education and Training Program, told UPI, "It looks like there are problems in those workers too." There is evidence of "respiratory problems," and "longer-term chronic disease that won't show up for years is something to be concerned about," he added.
    The NIEHS released a report Friday urging the federal government to do more to protect workers and emergency personnel from the hazards they face at disaster sites such as the World Trade Center. The protection of these workers needs to be included as part of homeland security development, Hughes said.
    The Ground Zero clean up "was so massive, extensive in duration and complex that nearly all aspects of our well-developed and relatively mature destructive incident response and cleanup operations plans were challenged and, in many cases, found defective in some measure," the report said. The deficiencies in protection of workers led to needless injuries to eyes and lungs of workers involved in clean up at Ground Zero and the Pentagon, the report added. "There were a lot of problems because nobody anticipated the duration or the magnitude of the clean-up effort," Hughes said. "We want to ensure that people are protected if there is something of that magnitude again."
    The report recommends police and firefighters be trained in and provided with protective gear such as respirators. The government also should develop safety guidelines specific for the aftermath of large-scale terrorist attacks because more general guidelines are "useless" in this type of situation.
    The report also calls for ending the search and rescue phase after 12-15 days because there is a minimal chance of recovering survivors at that point. In addition, the long hours involved in search and rescue can take a physical and mental toll on the workers that can lead to injuries and illness.
    The effect the World Trade Center clean up had on mental health is a primary concern, Breysse said, which "can manifest itself well down the road." He noted there has been an unconfirmed report of one worker attempting suicide. Some of these workers are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. The workers were at the site for months and "these guys are putting body parts on the back of their truck. Once you see this you can't close your eyes for weeks without thinking of that," he said
    He added the situation could become worse because workers essentially had a support group while working at the site, but now that is over. "They may need to turn to mental health professionals for help," he said. The Johns Hopkins researchers will continue to follow the workers and monitor their health status.


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