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Extended Interview: Researcher Discusses Health of 9/11 First Responders

Philip Landrigan, chairman of the Community and Preventive Medicine Department at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, discusses the department's recent report on the health of 9/11 first responders.

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  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Mt. Sinai has just completed a major study of the people who responded to the World Trade Center. What did you find?

  • PHILIP LANDRIGAN:

    Well, we reported on about 9,200 workers: firefighters, police, construction workers, other responders at the World Trade Center site. The major finding that we recorded was that approximately 60 percent of these people had developed new respiratory symptoms since starting work at Ground Zero.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Sixty percent is significant?

  • PHILIP LANDRIGAN:

    Sixty percent is very significant and it's much higher than we would expect in the general American population. And our assessment of the severity of the situation was heightened by the finding that in roughly two-thirds of these people the signs and symptoms were so persistent two or three years later.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    What kind of problems did you find?

  • PHILIP LANDRIGAN:

    Well, first of all we found upper respiratory problems. Very … nasty, very acute sinusitis in a lot of these folks. And then also lower respiratory problems — cough, wheeze.

    And then objectively going beyond just symptoms, we actually did what are called pulmonary function tests where people are asked to blow hard and fast into a tube and measure how much air they move in a given period of time. And we found lots of evidence in that test for pulmonary restriction, which is to say shrinkage in the volume of the lungs. And in one particular test the frequency for evidence of restriction was five times what we would expect in the general population of the U.S.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    We spoke with two police detectives — one who has cancer, has leukemia, and the other who has lost 50 percent of his kidney function. Is it possible to attribute those sorts of problems to Ground Zero?

  • PHILIP LANDRIGAN:

    Up until now we've been focusing on two things — respiratory problems and mental health problems. Because it was clear to all of us that those were the two categories of disease that were going to be most important in the first five years after the attacks.

    Now that we've gotten past the five-year point and we're moving into the period of time when you would begin to expect to see diseases that have a long [incubation] period, we're actually engaged in a process right now to develop criteria for which other diseases such as cancer, such as chronic lung disease, such as kidney disease, such as other diseases like he included on that list.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    But it's too early to know for sure?

  • PHILIP LANDRIGAN:

    We're working to get it right because all recognize that it's very important that the list has to be accurate. We have to be sure to provide benefits to anybody who deserves benefits and we don't want to make any mistakes.