A series of studies has found that workers who were near Ground Zero shortly after the 9/11 attacks in New York City suffer respiratory problems at rates much higher than the general public. Up to 20 percent of those workers also experience symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also called acid reflux.

Since October 2001, the New York City Fire Department and a consortium of academic medical centers have screened nearly 40,000 first responders, construction workers, and others who spent time at or near the World Trade Center site after the attacks.

The most recent data show that 5 to 10 percent of those screened suffer significant GERD and that about 20 percent show at least some symptoms of the disorder, says Paul Landsbergis of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. He presented the data at a Nov. 5 meeting of the American Public Health Association in Washington, D.C.

Landsbergis says that many workers with GERD probably swallowed some of the highly alkaline dust that wafted in the air for weeks. With a pH of 10 or 11, the dust—primarily pulverized concrete—could easily damage the esophagus, he says.

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