Saturday, September 15, 2007

My Day at Ground Zero

On this day six years ago, I boarded a bus full of volunteers and headed downtown to the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center. The plan was to unload a truck filled with bottles of water and then return to St. Vincent's Hospital. As we neared the disaster site, the glorious color of that perfect fall day faded to ashy gray. You couldn't tell the air from the ground.

After the water was unloaded, I thought I might be of more use, so when the bus headed back uptown, I stayed. The rest of the afternoon I spent offering sandwiches to rescue workers so dusted in ash that they looked as if they'd been rolled in powdered sugar. No one wanted the sandwiches. During breaks the powdered sugar men just sat and stared. Once I realized that I wasn't serving any useful purpose, I began to feel like a voyeur. I hitched a ride back uptown in an ambulance ferrying a couple of firemen to their station.

That was it. I didn't set eyes on The Pile again until there was no pile left, only a hole in the ground. Yet 18 months later, mysterious things started happening. I couldn't breathe and my skin turned the color of cement. I could barely swallow and lost 10 pounds in three weeks. I had to rest in the middle of climbing subway stairs. There was nothing wrong with me, according to the doctors I consulted. Chest x-ray, sonograms, cardiac exams-all came back negative.

Slowly I improved, even gaining back the lost 10 pounds. Then new symptoms developed. I started coughing and clearing my throat every minute or so. This time the doctors came up with a flood of diagnoses - laryngeal reflux, sinusitis, vocal cord dysfunction - followed by a bunch of treatments -- medication, surgery, voice therapy.

Somewhere in there I began to get inklings that the source of my health problems might not be so mysterious after all. Although I was only at the World Trade Center site that one day, it was on Day Two. I began to read reports that the first three days had been the most critical period for exposure to the toxic cloud. (On Day Four the air was washed by rain.) When I asked my doctors if there could be any connection, they deemed it highly unlikely. I had a hard time believing it myself. Still, my constellation of diagnoses was exactly in line with those that first responders were reporting.

Eventually I called the World Trade Center Health Registry at Bellevue, which in September 2003 began tracking the health of people exposed to the collapse of the Twin Towers. I expected to be told that my exposure was too brief to have been significant. Instead, after a 30-minute telephone survey, I became one of the study's enrollees.

I had a follow-up physical a few months ago, and the report was good. My "WTC cough" is mostly gone and I got an A in lung function. Others in the study haven't been so lucky.

I got sick because I was breathing the acutely toxic air of the first days and probably also because I was particularly susceptible. But my exposure to the smoke and dust only lasted a few hours, while rescue workers breathed the contaminated air for months. Many have developed long-lasting, serious illnesses.

A year ago, a major study affirmed a connection between pervasive health problems and the dust at Ground Zero. Last week the New York Times published an article undermining those conclusions. It reported on a continuing debate about how harmful the dust actually was. Critics contend that the study overstated the extent of the ailments by conflating those who reported lower-respiratory problems with others who merely had itchy eyes and runny noses.

Yet even allowing for this statistical error, the study still reveals a strong link between breathing toxins and serious illness. Subtract the workers with runny noses, you are left with nearly 50 percent of rescue workers reporting potentially grave symptoms.

Evidence of a different kind can be found on a message board set up by The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. There ailing policemen and other first responders ask each other questions like, "Has anyone else developed lung nodules?" "What about sarcoidosis?" They trade names of physicians and tell heartbreaking stories about lost vitality. “I was a non-smoker all my life,” writes one, “and was not exposed to toxins with the exception of Ground Zero. I was ALWAYS healthy and very active.” “No one seems all that concerned,” says another, “except that I can't walk up a flight of stairs without taking a rest.”

Like those who lost their lives in the WTC attack, ailing rescue workers are victims of 9/11. They may represent only half of Ground Zero workers, but they deserve support, not skepticism. Now that the projected cost of the World Trade Center memorial has climbed to nearly $1 billion, there is no reason to grudge continuing care for the injured and sick.

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