Ground Zero Workers Report 12 Times Normal Asthma Rate

NEW YORK, New York, August 28, 2007 (ENS) - Twelve times as many rescue and recovery workers developed asthma after responding to the World Trade Center disaster on September 11, 2001 than would be normally expected for the adult population, finds a new study released Monday by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The data, drawn from the World Trade Center Health Registry, show that 3.6 percent of the 25,000 rescue and recovery workers enrolled in the Registry report developing asthma since they were exposed to dust and debris at Ground Zero.

"The dust from the World Trade Center collapse appears to have had significant respiratory health effects at least for people who worked at the site," said New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden.

Workers who arrived on September 11, 2001, and worked more than 90 days reported the highest rate of new asthma - seven percent.

A firefighter sits amidst the wreckage of the World Trade Center. September 28, 2001. (Photo by Andrea Booher courtesy FEMA)
Rescue and recovery workers were a diverse group that included firefighters, police officers, construction workers and volunteers, among others. The study found no significant differences among people of different occupations, but workers’ locations did affect their risk.

Of those who were caught in the dust cloud, 4.9 percent reported developing asthma, and of those who worked on the debris pile, 4.5 percent reported developing the respiratory disease.

"These findings reflect the critical importance of getting appropriate respiratory protection to all workers as quickly as possible during a disaster, and making every effort to make sure workers wear them at all times," Dr. Frieden said.

Though respirator use increased as the clean-up progressed, many workers did not wear respiratory protection at the outset. Certain respirators can reduce exposure to hazardous dust when used correctly, but the survey could not distinguish among different types of masks or respirators, nor could it gauge correct usage.

Workers who wore them on September 11 and 12 reported newly-diagnosed asthma at lower rates than those who did not. The longer the period of not wearing masks or respirators, the greater the risk, the survey found.

Workers who went months without respiratory protection reported two to three times more asthma incidence than those who wore respirators from the outset. Though respirators were shown to be protective, all worker groups, including those who reported wearing masks, had elevated levels of newly reported asthma.

The rescue and recovery workers are a subset of the 71,000 people enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Registry. The survey, conducted in 2003 and 2004, found that arriving soon after the buildings collapsed, or working on the WTC pile over a long period, increased the workers’ risk of developing asthma.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes the former site of the World Trade Center, blamed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, for not enforcing workplace safety measures. Earlier this year, he chaired a Congressional hearing into the role of the EPA in lack of protection for workers at the site and residents of the area.

"Today’s important findings from the New York City Department of Health again underscore the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency and other government actors failed the first responders and other workers at Ground Zero by not telling the truth about air quality and by not demanding absolute adherence to workplace safety measures," Nadler said.

"If any good is to come from this tragedy," said Nadler, "the government must ensure that a plan is in place to properly protect the public health in the event of a similar catastrophe. The government must provide absolutely truthful environmental risk communications, and it must not give workplace safety regulations short shrift."

Dr. Frieden was less judgemental. "The events of 9/11 were unprecedented, and with the urgency of rescue operations and the difficulty of prolonged physical exertion with most types of respirators, there are no easy answers, even in retrospect," he said.

The paper was published in the journal "Environmental Health Perspectives" and is available online at www.ehponline.org.

The New York City Health Department is now re-surveying all 71,000 registrants to learn more about their current health status, and also is conducting a separate study of respiratory health among registrants. In addition, the Health Department is analyzing records to see whether the disaster has affected cancer incidence.

The Health Department has collaborated with clinicians from WTC Centers of Excellence to develop and distribute treatment guidelines for WTC-related respiratory conditions. The guidelines are online at: http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/chi/chi25-7.pdf.

Previous findings from the WTC Health Registry can be found at http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/wtc/materials.html.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.