Ground Zero workers still sick, exams show

Hospital checkups reveal ills, especially in lungs, 10 months after attack

January 28, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Among the first wave of Ground Zero workers who came forward for physical examinations at the Mount Sinai Medical Center last summer, nearly three-fourths had ear, nose or throat problems more than 10 months after the World Trade Center attack, doctors said yesterday.

More than half still had lung complaints or abnormal results in pulmonary function tests.

The results - 250 cases randomly selected from the first 500 examinations conducted under the federally financed screening program - provided the first statistical glimpse into what doctors and scientists say has emerged as the centerpiece of scientific and medical investigation into the health consequences of the World Trade Center collapse, rescue and recovery effort and cleanup.

The physicians stressed that their findings were preliminary and that it was risky to use this small sampling to predict the total number of problems among Ground Zero workers.

But they added that many of the 3,549 people examined so far at the hospital had more severe or extended exposure to the smoke and alkaline dust from the disaster than the people in the first group.

If anything, they said, the preliminary results might under-represent the health effects that could yet emerge.

Dr. Stephen M. Levin, the medical director of the Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said at a news conference in Manhattan that the real importance of the results was not a statistical portrait but the human cost the numbers reveal.

Only one-third of the people examined had received any prior medical care for the conditions that developed as a result of their work at the disaster site, he said. One in every five had symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, and more than half reported mental health symptoms requiring further evaluation.

"This group of workers and volunteers needs medical treatment; the resources have to be made available," Levin said. "No. 2, the need for long-term medical follow-up of this population is absolutely clear."

But like so much else in the environmental aftermath of 9/11, the swirling political implications of the link between public health and the disaster were very much at the backdrop of the hospital's announcement. The numbers illustrate a need, the doctors said again and again, that can be met only with more money to examine, treat and track people over time.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat who was lauded by hospital administrators and doctors for her work securing the $12 million last year to begin the one-year program, was in many ways the star of the news conference.

Once the numbers had been discussed, Levin and the other physicians deferred to her and her argument that the results strongly support the need for an additional $90 million - an appropriation approved by the Senate last week - to continue and expand the screening.

"We owe it to the people who were there day after day after day who have developed these physical symptoms," Clinton said. "And we owe it to ourselves to make sure that we do utilize the information we're receiving because of these examinations."

Mount Sinai's results largely conform with the findings of other medical studies, especially among firefighters, many of whom developed respiratory problems as a result of their rescue and recovery work on and after Sept. 11. About 300 to 500 firefighters are likely to retire as a result of their illnesses, health officials have said.

The Mount Sinai screening program accepts only people who worked or volunteered at the disaster site or at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, where much of the debris and remains from the attack were examined and processed.

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