Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Health Woes Follow 9/11 Cleanup Crew
By Kevin Lamb, Dayton Daily News, September 10, 2002

DAYTON, Ohio - Hardly anyone was sneezing or coughing. To doctors Tim Manuel and Randy Marriott, medical directors of the Ohio Task Force One unit at the World Trade Center rubble last September, that silence was ominous. "It told me the dust all around us was probably very fine particles that were going deep into the lungs," said Marriott, a Miami Valley Hospital emergency physician who also teaches with Manuel at Wright State University's School of Medicine.

Sneezing and coughing are reflexes to expel foreign irritants before they travel past the nose or throat. But like a flour sifter, they don't catch the tiniest material, and the deeper the irritants go into the airways, '`the more difficulty they can cause,'' Marriott said.

New Yorkers are calling the collection of respiratory symptoms in Ground Zero workers the WTC cough. At least 3,000 New York firefighters have the syndrome, and psychological disorders rank close behind respiratory illnesses in reasons for missed work. The 72 Ohio task force members who spent 11 days there have been most affected by chronic coughs, sore throats and runny noses, with lower amounts of asthma and pneumonia, but short-term illnesses may not be their biggest worry. ``There's some concern that we are not going to know the long-term consequences until the long term finally gets here,'' said Manuel, an emergency physician at Springfield's and Urbana's Mercy hospitals. He and Marriott also are still paramedics, in Bellbrook and Dayton, respectively.

Ground Zero exposure could accelerate long-term diseases that are already surfacing, Manuel said. New York Police Lt. Robert D. Rice has suffered metastatic lung cancer since working long shifts at Ground Zero, said his cousin, local resident Joyce Kasprzak. Oncologists told him the pollutants couldn't have caused cancer so quickly, but they can't draw on experience with skyscrapers ground to ash. ``We've talked about whether it could bring on any number of those kinds of cancers,'' Manuel said. ``It very well could. Any time you get an irritation to a tissue, it's going to do something. Is it going to start triggering cancers? God, I hope not.''

The towers' collapse left pulverized asbestos, plastic furniture, jet fuel, electrical equipment, fiberglass, PCBs and computer components in the air. Nobody knows how much is unsafe for most of those toxins by themselves, let alone in combination with each other or in uncommonly minute soot. Nor is anybody sure how much gunk people were breathing in mid-September. ``We were on our own for determining risk as far as levels of exposure,'' Manuel said. ``Not that it would have changed what we did.''

Ohio Task Force One mobilized within an hour of the second tower's collapse on Sept. 11. Although a state unit, most of the members were from the Dayton area and Cincinnati or Columbus. They arrived at dawn the next day to see smoke billowing from across the Hudson River, where the towers had stood.

At least two task force members outside the Miami Valley are battling the state for workers' compensation benefits with pneumonia, asthma and bronchial spasms, Marriott said, but the group in general had no short-term health consequences besides upper-respiratory ailments.

Dr. Steven Stephanides of University Hospital in Cincinnati compared task force members who made the trip with those who didn't. He said he found no significant difference through four months in workdays missed, lower-respiratory problems, muscle aches and prescriptions for antibiotics or chest X-rays. Psychologically, Marriott said, the members also have been doing ``fairly well.'' All saw counselors after returning. ``Just the interruption and the pace for 10 days were enough to put you on edge,'' Marriott said. ``And I think to some degree, the recognition we received when we came back was uniformly considered undeserved. You always have trouble when you're thrust into the role of alleged heroes. The anniversary might bring about some depression, too.''

The anniversary will trigger depression and anxiety in people who weren't in New York, too, experts expect. ``The normal reaction to an unfamiliar and life-threatening event _ fear, confusion and flight _ could cause greater damage than the attack itself'' over the long run, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs concluded last month in a report about large-scale terrorism.

For the task force members, not only was the mission a failure to rescue live people, Marriott said, but the dead New York rescuers included people they knew. ``Firefighters on the specialty rescue teams were people we had trained with,'' Manuel said. There are only 28 federal emergency Urban Search and Rescue units in the country. They're a tight group.

``That's medicine on the outside of normal boundaries,'' Manuel said. ``You're dealing where there's no health-care structure because the system has collapsed, and you're putting yourself on the line. Why? It's an inner drive that's different from what normal physicians would even consider doing. It just takes a different breed.''

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