ONE New York City firefighter recently told me about the health problems he has suffered since working at the World Trade Center site nearly five years ago: skin rashes, an inflamed colon, coughing and trouble breathing. He showed me a six-page list of the antibiotics and steroids doctors had prescribed over the years. These drugs helped mask his symptoms. But the problems never went away — until he began a new treatment to rid his body of the toxic substances he had inhaled and absorbed at Ground Zero.
This firefighter is among an estimated 40,000 police, firefighters and other workers who did rescue and cleanup on “the pile” after Sept. 11, 2001, while the remains of the buildings — not to mention their contents, jet fuel and other debris — smoldered for weeks, poisoning the air with mercury, lead, dioxin, asbestos, copper and dozens of other substances.
Today, increasing numbers of emergency service workers are reporting breathing and digestive problems and rashes, and their incidence of cancer is higher than normal. At least one death, that of Detective James Zadroga in January, from heart and lung complications, has been linked by a medical examiner to work at Ground Zero; six other responders in their 30’s and 40’s have died from causes like heart failure and lung cancer.
On Monday, Gov. George E. Pataki signed a law ordering New York City to pay more generous death benefits to the families of Sept. 11 responders who die from these illnesses. This measure, like the one passed last year granting disability pensions to Sept. 11 workers who develop respiratory problems or cancers, properly acknowledges the government’s responsibility for their health.
Still needed, however, even more urgently, is an effort to address the health problems these workers face. Many of the thousands of sufferers, like the firefighter who spoke to me, are getting treatments that offer only temporary relief. We need to figure out the best ways of curing what really ails the Sept. 11 responders.
Too often, discussions about the health of these workers have met with official denials that their problems can be directly linked to Ground Zero.
The denial began only a week after the tragedy, when Christine Todd Whitman, then head of the Environmental Protection Agency, declared that tests showed the air was safe to breathe. Later scientific studies showed that the air was in fact heavily polluted. And while it is true that the workers’ health problems have not been definitively linked to the environment, a wealth of evidence suggests that the air the workers breathed took its toll.
A study of more than 12,000 firemen and emergency medical workers at the site, recently published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, found that on average they had a reduction in lung function equivalent to what would be caused by 12 years of aging.
Doctors and other health practitioners at the Olive Leaf Wholeness Center, in downtown New York (where I work as a volunteer), have detected heavy-metal poisoning in many of the Ground Zero workers they have seen. They have given these workers detoxification treatments — including chelation for many patients. Chelation, a treatment often used on children exposed to lead paint, involves giving the patient a sulfur compound that draws heavy metals from the tissues.
These practitioners have found that after three to four months of detoxification therapy, the afflicted Ground Zero workers see most of their symptoms diminish or disappear.
Chelation is not the only detoxification method. No doubt, other doctors may have found treatments that work better on certain patients.
The federal government has provided New York City with $1 billion to cover the cost of liability claims brought by Ground Zero workers. Some of these funds have paid the legal costs of fighting disability and other claims filed by city workers. But no money has yet been appropriated for treatment of heavy metal toxicity.
There seems to be an assumption that the workers would prefer a large financial settlement to regaining their health. Political leaders should bring together medical experts who could determine the most effective protocols for ridding the body of heavy metals and make them known to Ground Zero workers and their doctors.