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Dusty legacy of 9/11 still a medical mystery

A shell of what was once part of the facade of one of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center rises above the rubble that remains after both towers were destroyed in the terrorist attacks.

NEW YORK (AP) — Like a lot of New Yorkers who spent time near the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center, Lorraine Ashman needs to take a deep breath before listing all the health problems that have afflicted her over the past decade.

First she got bronchiolitis and a constant cough that lasted for months. Then there were sinus infections, nine so far. She had pneumonia. She’s developed immune system problems, vitamin deficiencies and a sensitivity to gluten. She had acid reflux so bad it damaged the lining of her esophagus.

“I’ve just been sick nonstop,” she said. “Being on antibiotics 12 months out of the year is an insane way to live … I take 17 pills in the morning and six at night.”

Ashman, 57, blames it all on the sooty air she inhaled in the two months she worked as a volunteer near ground zero.

Science, however, is less sure.

A decade’s worth of study has answered only a handful of questions about the hundreds of health conditions that people like Ashman suspect are related to the tons of gray dust that fell on the city when the trade center collapsed.

While people have blamed everything from strange rashes to skin cancer on the dust, the list of illnesses even tentatively linked to the disaster is short.

Researchers have documented increased asthma rates among people exposed to the dust. Unusually high numbers of people have been diagnosed with chronic sinus problems, or inflammation of their nasal passages that makes their nose run constantly and causes a drippy cough. Many have also developed chronic heartburn caused by a stomach acid condition known as Gastroesophageal reflux disease.

A firefighter emerges from the smoke and debris of the World Trade Center in New York.

Doctors at clinics that treat ground zero workers and volunteers believe that exposure to the dust, which was made up of tons of pulverized concrete, glass and other building materials, may have irritated some people’s upper respiratory systems so much that many still haven’t recovered.

“We think it has set up a cycle of chronic irritation,” said Dr. Michael Crane, director of the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program at Mt. Sinai Medical Center. “It’s a very disturbing condition. It keeps people up at night.”

Luckily, he said, those symptoms are also highly controllable. Patients can use antihistamine and steroid sprays and a saline rinse to ease their discomfort. Asthma isn’t curable, but can be controlled through medication and quick-relief inhalers. A smaller group of people have had surgery to relieve sinus problems.

For many of the thousands getting treatment, however, fear runs deep. They aren’t worried about a nagging cough, or a frequent runny nose. They are worried about cancer.

And here, experts said, evidence of a tie has been lacking.

Firefighters make their way over the ruins of the World Trade Center through clouds of smoke at ground zero in New York.

Hundreds of people exposed to trade center dust have, indeed, gotten cancer, and many have died, but that hasn’t surprised doctors. Cancer is a leading killer of people in the U.S., even among people in their 40s. Many of the cancers now afflicting people who spent time on the debris pile can develop over decades, meaning the disease could have been simmering away unnoticed in their bodies for many years before 9/11.

Two new studies published Friday in the medical journal, The Lancet, failed to find a significant increase in cancer, or other deadly illnesses, among people exposed to the dust.PHOTO: Firefighters make their way over the ruins of the World Trade Center through clouds of smoke at ground zero in New York.



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