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Saturday, December 04, 2004

Every Breath You Take 

From a story that appeared in Newsday in August of last year:
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, the White House instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to give the public misleading information, telling New Yorkers it was safe to breathe when reliable information on air quality was not available . . . .

On the morning of Sept. 12, according to the report, the office of then-EPA Administrator Christie Whitman issued a memo: "All statements to the media should be cleared through the NSC (National Security Council in the White House) [meaning Condi Rice -- S.] before they are released" . . . .

Rep. Jerry Nadler, a Manhattan Democrat, called for a Justice Department investigation. "That the White House instructed EPA officials to downplay the health impact of the World Trade Center contaminants due to 'competing considerations' at the expense of the health and lives of New York City residents is an abomination," he said in a news release.
We mention it now because researchers, more than three years after the 9/11 attacks, are only beginning to assess the full extent of the damage to New Yorkers' respiratory health:
Inhaling toxic dust from the World Trade Center disaster on 11 September 2001 has damaged some rescue workers’ lungs more than years of smoking, US scientists reveal. Using an unconventional chest scan for the circumstances, researchers were able to capture visual signs of the severe respiratory problems that doctors could not otherwise have diagnosed.

Hundreds of people have been tested and treated for respiratory problems - or “World Trade Center cough” - since New York City’s twin towers fell, most of them suffering from asthma-like breathing difficulties. Some people, however, maintained persistent but unidentifiable coughs that could not be picked up using standard chest computed tomography (CT) scans . . . .

So Mendelson’s team turned to a technique called end-expiratory CT. In a normal chest scan, patients are asked to take a deep breath and hold it. In end-expiratory scans, patients take in a deep breath and release it slowly. In a healthy individual, the entire chest should be seen on the scan as an even grey colour – the CT representation of moving air.

The doctors scanned 29 rescue and recovery workers with unexplained symptoms. In 25 of these they saw splotchy black patches deep down in the finer, branching tubes of their airways. Black spots mean that air is trapped and stagnating in the lungs, making it difficult for the patients to breathe freely.

In order to gauge the severity of the air-trapping pattern, the authors developed a visual scale that ranged from 0 to 24. Mendelson says that smokers would probably fall somewhere between 0 to 4 on his scale. The World Trade Center rescue workers, however, averaged 10.55 . . . .

Richard Russell, of the British Thoracic Society in London, UK, is not surprised by the degree of lung tissue damage caused by exposure to the fine cement dust, which is capable of penetrating deeply into the lungs and damaging the delicate tissues found there.

But he warns that the rescue workers’ breathing problems might be permanent: “This is a physical problem that’s not going to go away with simple anti-inflammatories,” he says.

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