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Daily News

Win on 9/11 health


September 1, 2006—The City Health Department yesterday finally issued long-awaited guidelines for front-line doctors on how to spot and treat illnesses related to the World Trade Center disaster, barely two weeks shy of the fifth anniversary of 9/11.

But critics overwhelmingly blasted the agency for taking so long to publish recommendations that could have spared an untold number of ailing New Yorkers from suffering unnecessarily.

"It's outrageous that it took them so long," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan, Queens).

Maloney noted that congressional testimony from doctors who have been treating patients exposed to toxins and dust from Ground Zero revealed that 30% to 40% of them were being misdiagnosed or getting the wrong treatment from their own physicians.

Micki Siegel De Hernandez, health and safety director of the Communications Workers of America, echoed the anger of several labor leaders. "The Health Department has been missing in action when it comes to information about 9/11-related illness," said De Hernandez, whose union represents telecom workers and nurses who worked in lower Manhattan.

"It shouldn't have taken five years to do this. The information has been available for a long time," she said.

But Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden called such charges a "misrepresentation."

"Until the last year or two, there's been a scarcity of published scientific data on the respiratory effects" of WTCrelated illnesses, Frieden said.

However, researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center's WTC treatment program issued similar recommendations on respiratory illnesses in 2002, just months after the attacks.

The Health Department has previously alerted doctors about heightened risks for mental health problems such as depression and post-traumatic stress.

Frieden said he wished the clinical guidelines could have been issued sooner - but noted that getting experts and other advisers to reach a consensus took time. "This is a process of revision that began quite a while ago," he said.

Maloney said the recent series of hard-hitting Daily News editorials on the issue may have hastened health officials.

"I would say the Daily News editorials spurred them into action," she said.

Some ill New Yorkers said the guidelines were too little, too late. "I am very disappointed," said Jo Polett, 54, who lives on Duane St. in lower Manhattan. "I had no visible dust in my home, but I still got sick."

A lab test showed her apartment was contaminated with WTC dust containing elevated levels of lead and antimony.

Polett was eventually diagnosed with Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome (RADS) and still suffers from the pulmonary disorder.

Critics also expressed concern that the guidelines were too cautious - only considering acute exposure to toxins in the "days and months" after the disaster, and mentioning only in passing diseases that may take years to develop, such as cancer.

"I am concerned that the approach here is still too limiting," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan). "I am particularly troubled at the inadequate attention given to the issues of contaminated indoor spaces and chronic exposure populations."

Jonathan Bennett of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health agreed.

"There is nothing in guidelines to indicate that a person could have World Trade Center exposure because they work in an office building or live in an apartment in lower Manhattan," Bennett said. "It's irresponsible of these guidelines to act as if that class of people shouldn't be considered."

Advocates for ailing cops, firefighters, cleanup workers and downtown residents said that the language was overly cautious to avoid exposing the city to future lawsuits - a charge Frieden strongly denied.

The city Law Department was shown early drafts of the document, but "all decisions on content are made solely by the Health Department," he said.

"The concept that the city is somehow saying, 'No. Nobody is sick,' is just wrong. We're saying clearly that there are health effects," Frieden said.

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