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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Ground-Zero Workers Air Concerns Over Health Impact

Jobs: Some firefighters and others around the World Trade Center site since the Sept. 11 attack have had breathing problems--and wonder if the worst is yet to come.

January 13, 2002|MALCOLM RITTER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — Many firefighters who raced to save victims of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack now are facing their own health problems because of the contaminated air at the disaster site.

Some have asthma. Others have troubles ranging from a persistent cough to diminished lung capacity that can interfere with their physically demanding jobs. A few hundred are on medical leave or working light duty because of respiratory illness.

It's too soon to tell how many firefighters will be permanently disabled and forced to retire because of the respiratory problems, said Fire Department spokesman Frank Gribbon. But so far about 30 firefighters have started the retirement process because of respiratory problems after working at the trade-center disaster, which either caused their lung ailments or made prior ones worse, Gribbon said.

Like a Ticking Time Bomb

Apart from those with current symptoms, medical experts say some firefighters and other ground-zero workers may be at risk of developing cancer decades from now.

One attorney said he has filed legal documents on behalf of more than 700 firefighters with respiratory symptoms to preserve their right to sue the city later.

Many firefighters who participated in the rescue effort are easily winded, suffer from chronic cough or have developed symptoms of asthma, said Tom Manley, health and safety officer for the Uniformed Firefighters Assn.

Some on medical leave may not be able to return to their old jobs, he said.

"You can't be fighting fires with asthma," said Manley, a firefighter for 19 years. "Smoke irritates asthma severely. And when you climb stairs, you are shot by the time you get up there. You're going to be out of wind."

One fourth-generation firefighter, who worked at the trade center site 18 hours a day for the first three days after the disaster and then every other day for about a week, said his first signs of breathing trouble appeared about a month later.

He noticed he became easily winded when exercising or doing job activities like climbing tall ladders. "I knew there was something wrong," he said. "I was getting tired too quickly."

The man, who asked not to be identified because he thought his superiors would disapprove of his talking to the media, said he went to a Fire Department doctor for a checkup. The doctor gave him medicine, and the department put him on medical leave and told him to limit his exercise.

A few weeks ago he started getting congested with a gritty phlegm. He said his doctor told him it was a sign his problem is clearing up. "I can live with that for now," he said.

But there's also the dry, raspy cough he's had since the first week after the disaster. "It's always there," although the severity comes and goes. Once or twice a week, he said, "your lungs hurt from coughing, you get a pain in your back."

Manley, who was at the trade center when the towers collapsed, also continues to be nagged by the so-called World Trade Center cough.

"In the mornings it's heavy," he said. "It feels like a powder on the back of your throat."

Apart from the cough, "you can't take a deep breath sometimes," he said. He said he has been helped by an inhaler and medication. Gribbon said many firefighters with persistent cough are on the job and improving with treatment.

Michael Barasch, the attorney who has filed the legal notices on behalf of firefighters, said one fireman who used to run marathons now finds he can't even carry his 3-year-old daughter up the stairs because of lung disease.

"We have guys who are waking up every morning with horrible coughs, spitting up blood," Barasch said.

The notices he has filed are intended to preserve the firefighters' right to sue the city under the claim that the city failed to follow federal regulations and provide protective respirators soon after the attack, the attorney said. Besides the 700 firefighters, he said he has also filed on behalf of about 300 police officers, fire marshals and emergency medical technicians.

Researchers who are studying the health effects of Sept. 11 say the failure of many rescue workers to wear respirators is a major factor in their health. The firefighter on medical leave said he didn't wear one for the first few days because "there were none around."

Manley said that with so many off-duty firefighters and volunteers pouring in to help, there simply weren't enough to go around early on. Some used surgical masks, he said, but those can't keep all the potentially hazardous materials out of the lungs.

Gribbon said that even when respirators were available, some firefighters chose not to wear them. The equipment is uncomfortable, he said, and makes communication difficult.

Respirator use by workers at ground zero improved after the first few days but "could certainly be better," said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, chairman of the department of community and preventive medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

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