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New York Times


Clear the Air on 9-11 Health

February 19, 2006—Thousands of Ground Zero rescue and recovery workers were exposed to toxic substances that jeopardized their health and lives. Now, many have been plunged into inexcusable, potentially dangerous confusion over the consequences of that exposure.

Many are suffering from lung ailments, and the recent deaths of three first-responders have heightened fears of broader mortality. While those deaths have not been scientifically linked to Ground Zero, the concerns are understandable, and they must be addressed through an authoritative review of why each man died.

At the same time, there is a pressing need to give 9/11 responders and their families up-to-date information on WTC-linked illnesses as well as expert advice on treatments. Both are now sorely lacking, and the vacuum is often filled by misinformation.

Distraught family members talk of black-lung disease and of brains being destroyed by mercury poisoning. Some have endorsed rare medical procedures for identifying infections and leaching heavy metals from the body. Trouble is, occupational and environmental health experts say these conclusions are likely wrong, and the proposed treatments can be dangerous. Making matters worse, the experts say, many private physicians aren't up to speed on recognizing or treating illnesses triggered by toxic exposure.

Dr. Stephen Levin, co-director of Mount Sinai Medical Center's World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program — which tracks the health of about 25,000 people exposed to Ground Zero — says his patients include asthma sufferers whose doctors didn't know how to treat what amounted to chemical burns in their lungs. He also says some physicians have leaped to conclusions about the presence of harmful mercury because they ordered blood tests rather than urine tests. Proper screening has found no exposure to heavy metals, including mercury, say Levin and Fire Department doc-tors.

Along with Mount Sinai, the Fire and Health departments are monitoring the effects of 9/11 toxins, including such respiratory ills as World Trade Center cough. Dr. David Prezant, head of the FDNY program, says his doctors see a trend toward improved health among their patients; Mount Sinai has not seen similar healing.

Meanwhile, the Health Department is largely in the dark. Its role for the moment is limited to a long-term study of what happens to the health of more than 70,000 people who filled out questionnaires in 2003. Followup surveys, including one this year, will produce invaluable data 10 years down the road. But not today, and that's why Health Commis-sioner Thomas Frieden and his staff must do more.

Reps. Vito Fossella and Carolyn Maloney have called for a 9/11 health czar. Frieden should properly fill that role. His department has the largest database on 9/11 exposure and has both the expertise and the clout to evaluate and disseminate the latest information gleaned by FDNY and Mount Sinai doctors.

The department is perfectly suited to report publicly on patterns of illness, to analyze autopsies performed on first-responders who die, as it now must, and to issue advisories to physicians about the best treatments for various ailments. The city owes as much to everyone who was exposed to toxins because of the terror attack.