Lingering legacy of Sept. 11, 2001, on firefighters’ health

Nearly all of New York City’s 11,000 firefighters worked at the World Trade Center towers after the terrorist attack there. Researchers report in the Sept. 12 New England Journal of Medicine that about 10,000 firefighters developed coughs in the days and weeks following the attack, and 332 developed a persistent cough severe enough to require medical leave for at least 4 weeks. Half of the latter group hasn’t yet returned to work and may face retirement or permanent disability leave.

Considering the large proportion of firefighters who developed a cough, the percentage with symptoms requiring time off is relatively small, says lead researcher David J. Prezant of the Fire Department of New York City and the Montefiore Medical Center in New York. However, symptoms in the sicker group seem to be more severe than expected, he says.

Many of the firefighters at Ground Zero have reported symptoms of heartburn, or gastroesophageal-reflux disorder, along with their cough–an unusual combination. Their esophagi were apparently irritated as firefighters swallowed the fine particulate matter that accumulated in their noses, mouths, and throats during the rescue and recovery work.

Presumably, the coughs were triggered by the same dust. “We’re never going to know the full scale of what firefighters were exposed to,” Prezant says, given that much of the dust had already settled by the time air-quality-monitoring began.


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