Did mysterious fumes from the World Trade Center disaster leave firefighters, aid workers, and others with debilitating, lifelong diseases? Or might the people involved suffer from nothing more than a combination of smoke inhalation, flu symptoms, and (quite understandable) stress? It's too soon to say, but already hype about mysterious illnesses is spreading in the press. Witness last month's Associated Press report by Malcolm Ritter.
In an article built largely around the firefighters union's description of its men's problems (with hints of pending compensation and early-retirement filings), Ritter writes, "Some have asthma. Others have troubles ranging from a persistent cough to diminished lung capacity that can interfere with their physically demanding jobs...It's too soon to tell how many firefighters will be permanently disabled or forced to retire." Fire department spokesman Frank Gribbon told Ritter that some thirty firefighters have already started the retirement process as a result of 9/11 and after seeing over three hundred of their co-workers killed, can you blame them?
Ritter makes no effort to compare the firefighters' complaints to similar complaints after other devastating fires, emotionally-disturbing mass deaths, or other disasters. He notes some commonplace carcinogenic chemicals amongst the Trade Center ruins but offers only the claims of an unnamed group of "private researchers" (actually environmental activists) as evidence that these chemicals might be contributing to health problems.
Uncertainty becomes reason for fear throughout the article, as when Ritter tells us it's "hard to say" how great the threat of lung cancer from the disaster is "because nobody knows how many workers were exposed to various levels of asbestos." In fact, despite the substance's notoriety, asbestos-related illness has almost never been recorded except in very heavily exposed factory workers, especially the smokers among them, in the days before the substance's risks were fully known. Ritter also tells us that some workers and others near the site have stuffy noses and sinus inflammation, and he concludes on the dire note that this "can turn into a chronic lifelong condition, but the hope is that early treatment can prevent that."
On a similar note, an MSNBC report about the illnesses enlarged the circle of fear far beyond relief workers and firefighters: "doctors say all of the tens of thousands of people in the area that day...should be watching for problems." They quote a Mount Sinai doctor who says, "Whether it's sinus congestion and pain, sore throat, hoarseness of voice, chest tightness, persistent cough," those kinds of symptoms "warrant evaluation." It's hard to argue with that, though it's also hard to see those as unusual symptoms in a population of tens of thousands who are susceptible to all the usual head colds and afflictions of being alive.
With worry in the air and with the entire nation pained by the Trade Center disaster Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) has stepped in to lead Congress in approving a $12 million addition to the budget of the Department of Defense, specifically to study Trade Center-related illness. One must hope that the first step will be convening a blue-ribbon panel of independent-minded scientists to investigate whether there is even any increased rate of illness in need of explanation.
The destruction of the World Trade Center led to many disagreements over proper military responses, foreign policy, economic remedies, and airport security. Who could foresee, though, that it would also pit a writer who fights unscientific thinking against the lead singer of the punk rock band Furious George? Steven Milloy, writer and publisher of JunkScience.com, attributed much of the Trade Center wave of illness to hypochondria in an article for the New York Post. He cites the case of punk rocker George Tabb, a columnist colleague of mine from my days at NYPress who, since 9/11, has written of his strange late-night asthma attacks and his wife's headaches. Tabb finds that his illness only clears up when he moves away from the Trade Center site, which he lives only a few blocks away from. Tabb is a victim of something and his physical symptoms are no doubt real, but whether the ultimate cause is chemical or mental is unclear and saying so is no insult to Tabb, nor the suffering firefighters.
Americans have shown a bit less patience for odd ideas since 9/11, with religious fundamentalists, America-bashing feminists, anti-globalization activists, all-cultures-are-equal academics, civil libertarians (such as this author), and other colorful characters getting less sympathetic hearing than they did in peaceful times. No matter how common-sensical and practical we imagine ourselves to be, though, we are still susceptible to the same old mistaken ideas when it comes to identifying the causes of illness: not checking illness rates against normal background rates of disease, confusing physical and psychological causes, and wanting to find a sinister culprit for our pain. It remains to be seen whether those pitfalls will be avoided in the case of the World Trade Center.
September 6, 2003
After hearing the information regarding the WTC registry on last night's WNBC news, it implied that all people who have suffered health issues as a result of exposure to the 9/11 attacks were encouraged to call and register. This is the first time I thought that everyone suffering long-term health issues was going to be included in any registration process.
Unfortunately, when I called, I was told the registration was only for those individuals who actually worked in the clean-up and recovery efforts, and those residents in the immediate area. The news broadcast clearly indicated that all people with health issues were being encouraged to register and included those individuals who worked in the clean-up recovery. Is there a registry for those of us who worked in Manhattan during the aftermath?
I, personally, have suffered continual respiratory difficulties, in addition to blistering of my fingers and hands in the weeks and months immediately after the attacks. Extreme fatigue and depression have followed, and, in October of 2002, I left my job at a major advertising agency on 20th and Broadway as a result of my symptoms. While the blistering on my hands and fingers has completely healed since my departure from Manhattan, I continue to suffer with a cough, extreme fatigue, and clinical depression. Where is the registry for those of us who were not directly working in the WTC clean-up and recovery, did not and do not live/work in the immediate area, but have suffered, and are suffering, long-term health and mental health issues as a result of our exposure?
Is someone going to address the issue of the average employee working in Manhattan during the time of the attacks and after? Someone has to document our exposure and illness.
While any study could always be broader, a very large sample of New Yorkers is already being watched for signs of unusual illness and do not thus far appear to be manifesting any besides stress effects and, on and immediately following 9/11/01, breathing problems and other injuries resulting from very close proximity to the disaster. If your non-stress-induced, non-depression-related symptoms were caused by 9/11, it seems likely they would have appeared in a noticeable cross section of other Manhattanites. But you should discuss your symptoms with your doctor regardless of their cause.