Find Lasting Lung Damage For Post-9/11 Responders

Chief Leader - April 13, 2010

by ARI PAUL

A study conducted by the Fire Department and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine published April 8 in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that the vast majority of agency responders who suffered reduced lung capacity as a result of working at Ground Zero have not recovered was a welcome validation of first-responder advocates' claims.

The study, the most comprehensive of its kind, relied on the pre-9/11 pulmonary health data of FDNY responders. FDNY Chief Medical Officer David Prezant, a primary author of the study, said in a statement: "This exposure at Ground Zero was so unique that no one could have predicted the impact on lung function. We demonstrated dramatic decline in lung function, mostly in the first six months after 9/11, and these declines persisted with little or no meaningful recovery of lung function among FDNY rescue workers (firefighters and Emergency Medical Service workers) over the next six-and-a-half years."

Density Precluded Recovery

Dr. Thomas Aldrich, a professor of medicine at Einstein and the study's lead researcher, noted that studies prior to the World Trade Center attacks of firefighter toxin exposure showed pulmonary recovery, over a period of years, but that 9/11 was different because of the density of toxic particles in the air at Ground Zero.

"All smoke contains particulates, but not at the density seen in the WTC collapse, especially if you were at the site during the first two or three days or for long durations thereafter," he said. "In a normal fire, you don't get enveloped in a particulate cloud so thick that you can't even see through it."

Dr. Aldrich added, "The difference seems to be that the workers in our study population experienced repeated daily exposures to much higher concentrations of airborne particulates (solid particles suspended in the air) and gaseous chemicals."

There was, of course, another difference, one that unions have emphasized for years. While firefighters are equipped with fresh oxygen when inside fire buildings, responders in the 9/11 cleanup effort were not issued air-purifying respirators until December 2001.

The findings—published by one of the world's most respected medical journals—offer extra lobbying ammunition for unions, some of which are in Washington D.C. this week to push members of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy Committee to approve the James Zadroga bill, which would secure permanent Federal funding for 9/11 health monitoring and treatment.

'Makes Case for Zadroga Bill'

"For any Congressperson who reads this and does not fully understand the need for the Zadroga bill, then they're just out of touch with reality," said Patrick J. Bahnken, who as president of Local 2507 of District Council 37 represents FDNY Paramedics and Emergency Medical Technicians. "The facts stand alone."

Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy wasn't surprised by the study's findings, but said they raised the likelihood that worse types of ailments would also be common for FDNY responders, highlighting the need for the Zadroga bill.

"That's just the measurement of lung capacity," he said. "What about the cancers that are so likely to come in the years to follow? You can't damage your lungs that quickly and not think that there won't be more serious negative impacts."

John Feal, the Feal Good Foundation's founder and a private-sector 9/11 responder who lost half his foot in the clean-up effort, said that although the study "vindicates" the bill's supporters, he was confident that there were already 34 members of the 59-member committee in support of the bill, which if approved would proceed to a full House vote.

'We Have the Votes'

"We already have the votes," he said. "By the time I'm done with them I'll have 38."

The study focused exclusively on FDNY responders, in part, researchers said, because that agency had the mostcomplete pulmonary health data pre- 9/11 of the agencies whose members responded to the attacks. But responder advocates believe that the data in last week's study represents the condition for the entire group of responders.

"That's just on the FDNY," Mr. Feal said. "Just imagine the thousands of others who are sick."

The study also presents a new twist in the on-going settlement talks between the city and lawyers for more than 10,000 sick 9/11 responders. They originally reached a settlement worth more than $600 million last month, which U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein rejected on grounds that the average payout per claimant after lawyers' fees were deducted would come to too paltry a sum—around $40,000—given the severity of 9/11 illnesses. He was scheduled to hold a hearing on the case April 12, the day this newspaper went to press.

Makes Case for Bigger Awards?

Since this study paints a more-dire picture of post-9/11 health, it may bolster Judge Hellerstein's argument that the settlement figure must be larger and lawyers' fees reduced.

But Marc Jay Bern, the lead plaintiff attorney in the case, saw it differently.

"This is a permanent, irreversible condition, and hopefully the Judge will take note of this, see the plight of the workers-slash-litigants, and will hopefully move this settlement to what should have happened many weeks ago, and that is a final resolution," he said. "These individuals are entitled to their compensation now, not years from now."