500 WTC recovery workers and volunteers have new and persistent respiratory problems

Nearly half of more than 1,000 screened rescue and recovery workers and volunteers who responded to the World Trade Center attacks have new and persistent respiratory problems, and more than half have persistent psychological symptoms, according to preliminary data from a medical screening program funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and administered by the Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York City.

“These findings suggest that specialized medical monitoring programs for rescue and recovery workers that identify potential problems and make appropriate referrals for treatment should be part of all emergency preparedness plans,” said Dr. John Howard, director of the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). “Early provision of respiratory and other protective equipment is also crucial for preventing physical and mental health effects.”

The findings released today in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report are based on evaluation of data from 1,138 participants (91% were men and the median age was 41) who voluntarily enrolled in the World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program. Through August 2004, the screening program has provided free standardized medical assessments, clinical referrals and occupational health education to nearly 12,000 workers and volunteers exposed to environmental contaminants, psychological stressors, and physical hazards. Besides respiratory and mental health effects, program participants also reported lower back and upper or lower extremity pain, heartburn, eye irritation, and frequent headache.

“These preliminary findings of the WTC Screening Program demonstrate that large numbers of workers and volunteers suffered persistent, substantial effects on their respiratory and psychological health as a result of their efforts,” said Dr. Stephen Levin, Co-Director of the World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program.

Only 21% of the workers and volunteers participating in the screening program, most of whom were police officers and utility and construction workers (Fire Department of New York personnel are covered by other programs), had appropriate respiratory protection September 11-14, 2001. During that period, exposures to dust, diesel exhaust, pulverized cement, glass fibers, asbestos, and other airborne contaminants were considered to be greatest.

Of the 1,138 screened workers and volunteers whose responses were analyzed for these reports, 51% met the pre-determined criteria for risk of mental health problems. The responses also indicated that the participants’ risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was four times the rate of PTSD in the general male population.

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