Health Problems Remain for WTC Rescue Workers

Andrew Porazzo, an electrician and Ground Zero rescue volunteer.

Andrew Porazzo, 45, helped build a temporary city for workers sifting World Trade Center rubble for remains. His lungs are now scarred and he says he's currently unable to work. Joseph Shapiro, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Joseph Shapiro, NPR

Health Resources for WTC Recovery Workers

   

Last week, Mount Sinai Medical Center released the initial findings from a three-year study tracking workers and volunteers at Ground Zero and the Staten Island Landfill. The report found that almost 70 percent of World Trade Center responders had developed some type of respiratory ailment and almost 60 percent were still suffering respiratory problems. Mount Sinai researchers say rescue workers and volunteers were exposed to pulverized glass, cement and toxins. Here, a list of organizations which help WTC recovery workers obtain medical, social and financial support:

   

World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program

   

The World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program is a federally funded, multicenter clinical program available to assist WTC recovery workers. It's based at Mount Sinai's I.J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

   

The program, which provides free, confidential medical examinations, recommends that anyone who worked at Ground Zero and related sites, regardless of whether they have physical symptoms, should come for a screening. The program also houses an extensive social-work network, which links participants to mental health, financial and insurance resources.

   

FDNY World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program

   

The FDNY's Medical Monitoring Program is identical to the Mount Sinai program, but is specifically for firefighters who were involved with the rescue and recovery effort at the WTC site. It includes a free four-hour comprehensive medical evaluation along with additional follow-up testing and treatment. All FDNY members — active and retired — are eligible.

   

9/11 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Program

   

Jointly run by the Red Cross and the Mental Association of New York City, this program provides financial assistance for mental health and substance abuse treatment for people directly affected by the terrorist attacks. All rescue and recovery workers are eligible. Psychological testing, counseling, support groups, medication, detoxification and in-patient care are among the services approved for financial aid.

   

World Trade Center Health Registry

   

The World Trade Center Health Registry, sponsored by the NYC Department of Public Health, conducts 30-minute health surveys with people who were located in or near the WTC complex on Sept. 11, as well as people involved in rescue, recovery, cleanup, or other activities at the WTC site and WTC Recovery Operations on Staten Island. The survey allows health professionals to notify enrollees of health studies for which they might be eligible and provides enrollees with health information. The survey plans to follow up with enrollees periodically over the next 20 years. — Melody Joy Kramer

Concern is growing about the health problems showing up in thousands of police, firefighters, construction workers and volunteers who took part in the rescue and cleanup efforts following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Andrew Porazzo, an electrician, worked in the rubble of the World Trade Center towers, and his health has never been the same.

Sitting at his kitchen table in his Staten Island, N.Y., apartment, Porazzo flips through some of his medical records. His medications alone cost $200 a month, which is a challenge because Porazzo is no longer able to work.

Quiet reminders of Sept. 11 are all around him. Newspaper clippings. A tattoo on his chest — the initials of his friend, a fireman, who died that day. There's also the scarring on Porazzo's lungs.

"I didn't want this problem, I didn't want to depend on medicine," says the 45-year-old. "I never needed medicine before, now I need it, and this is something that's maintaining my life right now. And it's just not making me happy."

Porazzo says he's luckier than many who did rescue work. He has good health insurance and received worker's compensation. Still, his income's been cut in half.

Inside a Dangerous Snow Globe

On Sept. 11, Porazzo took his teenage son and daughter out of school, and then he headed to Ground Zero to volunteer. When barges and trucks dumped the rubble at the Staten Island landfill, he helped build the temporary city there for the police and other workers who sifted through the debris looking for body parts and evidence.

He says working at the landfill was like working inside a giant snow globe, with debris sparkling in the air.

"It was like a glass bubble," he recalls, "all these crystals and things just floating around. And you're just looking. You had all kinds of molecules … debris molecules. And we had no idea what they were. No idea."

It turned out the air was filled with pulverized concrete, tiny shards of glass, and agents known to cause cancer.

Porazzo and thousands of others worked without the protective masks, called respirators, that might have helped.

"They had certain people walking around with protective gear, but the guys that were working working, they didn't give us nothing," he says. "We didn't have nothing. I think they had everything else but respirators. They had clothes, they had boots, they had candy, they had soda. Everything but respirators."

Porazzo's eyes watered; his throat got sore. After a month, he had to stop. Later, he was diagnosed with the illnesses now so common among the rescue workers: lung spasms, shortness of breath, acid reflux, and post-traumatic stress disorder, too.

Disturbing Results

Porazzo signed up for a monitoring program at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. Doctors there have checked the lungs of some 16,000 World Trade Center volunteers and rescue workers.

Last week, Dr. Robin Herbert released results of tests given to 9,000 of the first patients. Almost 70 percent of those tested developed breathing problems after Sept. 11.

"Our World Trade Center patients were highly exposed," he says, "and they are now highly symptomatic, with very high rates of breathing-test abnormalities."

What really worries the doctors is that, for the most part, those breathing problems haven't gone away. Herbert says nearly 60 percent still had difficulty months or years later.

"There should no longer be any doubt about the health effects of the World Trade Center," Herbert says. "Our patients are sick, and will need ongoing health monitoring and treatment for the rest of their lives."

Concern about these workers grew with the death of police detective James Zadroga in January. He was 34. A medical examiner linked his death to breathing the toxic dust at Ground Zero.

At Mount Sinai hospital, Dr. Philip Landrigan said the problems are particularly striking when you consider who these patients are.

"These are people who, before Sept. 11, were very robust individuals," Landrigan says. "These were construction workers, police officers, firefighters, people who tend to be hyper-fit. And now, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, they're having serious problems, disability, trouble holding a job."

Long-Term Prognosis

Landrigan says doctors fear that, years from now, they will find spikes in cancer rates.

"The principle basis for our concern about cancers in these men and women has to do with the terribly toxic, carcinogenic composition of the dust and the debris that they inhaled," Landrigan says. "We know there was asbestos there, we know that dioxin formed when the towers burned."

All this raises questions about who will pay for treatment. There are several clinics, including one set up for people who lived and worked near Ground Zero.

Congress has just made $52 million dollars available; the first federal money for treatment since Sept. 11. Dr. John Howard runs the federal government's efforts. He says the money may barely be enough to cover a few years of drugs.

"We're concerned about the treatment costs associated with pharmaceuticals to treat some of these asthmatic conditions," Howard says. "And there are expensive medications that have to be used. We're hoping to have enough money for three years. But that's going to be tough."

As the Mount Sinai doctors released their results at the press conference, Andrew Porazzo was around the corner at a doctor's office. He goes to one or two appointments a week. For this one, he has to drive more than two hours round trip.

Porazzo says he has no regrets about working in the dangerous debris of the World Trade Center.

"I'd do it 100 percent all over again," Porazzo says. "I might have took some years off my life but I'll never give up the patriot feeling that I have inside me."

Researchers at Mount Sinai will release more studies of the Sept. 11 workers. The next will look at how many are also dealing with mental health problems. In the past year, 39 percent of the Mount Sinai patients have been diagnosed with chronic depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

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