Some rescue workers at the World Trade Center site are experiencing a cough, and Dr. David Prezant, the deputy medical officer for the New York Fire Department said the department plans to do long-term research. As many as 10,000 firefighters will be monitored and undergo blood and urine tests to determine whether they were exposed to PCBs, dioxin, asbestos or other hazardous materials, he added.
Researchers will examine the test results to determine if there are differences between firefighters who were at the trade center when the towers collapsed, firefighters who worked at the scene following the collapse, and firefighters who never went to the scene.
Department officials are campaigning to get more firefighters to wear respirators and they want manufacturers to get busy and develop lighter models.
The cough is "preventable and treatable through the increased use of respirators, tobacco cessation and medication," Prezant told attendees at the annual conference of the American College of Chest Physicians.
Some rescuers are experiencing a persistent, dry cough and sore throat, accompanied by chest irritation, shortness of breath and wheezing. The symptoms are caused from breathing the dust of pulverized concrete, glass and other airborne contaminants, said Prezant, and are aggravated by smoking. In addition, some workers are experiencing gastrointestinal irritation from swallowing the irritants.
Fire department officials say that as many as 4,000 or the approximately 11,000 rescue workers are complaining of the cough. They are being treated with steroid inhalants and, for the most part, are responding well to treatment. Prezant revealed that he himself has been treated for the cough.
Prezant said he would not comment on future health problems associated with rescue efforts. "We''re human beings, so we worry about future events that are out of our control," he admitted. "But we don''t know about the long term. We do know what we can change today."
One thing the fire department plans to change is the number of firefighters who smoke. They hope to wean 15 percent of N.Y. firefighters off cigarettes.
Higher rates of heart attacks have been found in people who have been exposed to particulates. Cancer and heart disease are associated with smoking, noted Prezant, which could lead to "dire consequences" for rescue workers who smoke.
by Sandy Smith