Almost 7 Years after 9/11, Health Issues Linger

As we approach the seven-year anniversary of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, follow-up studies by NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and other organizations are showing that for many of those who aided in rescue and recovery efforts, physical and psychological ailments continue. A May 2008 NIEHS study notes, for example, that of the thousands of workers exposed to hazardous environmental conditions and psychological trauma during the tragedy, 11.1 percent have reported suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. And according to this week's Health Commentary (, an additional 9 percent are clinically depressed, 5 percent suffer panic disorders, and 62 percent have substantial stress reactions.

"None of this is news to the police or firefighters in New York City," writes Mike Magee, M.D. "They've been fighting an uphill battle for years, watching responders decline. Two years ago I attended the wake of a police responder who had committed suicide. His partners told me he was not the first, and that there were several others, physically disabled by the events, and increasingly depressed by prospects for their futures, who they knew would likely end up the same way.

"The challenge that lies ahead is not a small one. It's likely we'll see problems for years to come. Dr. Robin Herbert, co-director of the hospital's program monitoring afflicted workers, told lawmakers in 2006 that new patients are still arriving at Mount Sinai to be treated for 9/11-related illnesses and thousands probably will need lifelong care. And it's not just New Yorkers. Volunteer responders from outside New York need will need to be monitored as well."

Magee notes that one of the biggest question marks surrounding the lingering ailments is the effect of the dust-laden air surrounding the collapse of the WTC towers. "What was in the air that day? Pretty much everything that had been in two 100-story buildings--but in vaporized form," says Magee. "Years later, it has become clear that warnings by Christie Todd Whitman, then head of the EPA, fell short in protecting workers sent to the scene. The problem is that it is possible we were not measuring the right things at the time. For example, we are now learning the dangers of nanotubes, micro-miniaturized rolled up sheets of carbon that may be of future use in electronics. A study revealed that mice exposed to the substance responded with cancer development in the same way as when exposed to asbestos. There were no nanotubes in the Twin Towers, and asbestos measures at the time were supposed to be OK. But what about all the other vaporized computers, electronics and building materials we'd never expect to be in our air under normal circumstances?"

The NIEHS report says that workers' service in 9/11 recovery operations is associated with chronic impairment of mental health and social functioning. The report concludes: "Psychological distress and psychopathology in WTC workers greatly exceed population norms. Surveillance and treatment programs continue to be needed."

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