Tuesday, January 28, 2003

WTC searchers, including Ohioans, to get screening



By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dozens of search-and-rescue workers from Ohio who worked at Ground Zero after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center will get free medical screening from a federal program announced Monday.

A $12 million effort through the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has been launched to check for health problems among 9,000 people from several states who were directly involved in rescue and cleanup efforts.

The Ohio Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Team sent 74 of its roughly 150 members to New York for nine days - from Sept. 12 to Sept. 20, 2001 - to sift through tons of dust-covered debris in hopes of finding survivors.

Of those, 37 reported suffering health problems soon after coming home, ranging from sinus infections to pneumonia serious enough to require hospitalization, said Lt. Jack Reall, task force leader.

But in the months that followed, their claims for reimbursement for health expenses were rejected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It was only after testifying at a congressional hearing that his team's claims were paid, Lt. Reall said.

While crew members recovered from the initial problems, many remain concerned about long-term cancer risks and other potential problems, he said.

"There was so much conflicting information. One moment, people said we were breathing in lethal amounts of asbestos. The next moment, the amounts were so low it was not worth bothering with a mask," Lt. Reall said

The workers were exposed to a complex mix of potentially toxic substances, including asbestos, acid fumes, heavy metals, and smoke from burned materials.

If illness results, it could take 15 to 20 years to show up, said Dr. James Lockey, director of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Cincinnati, which will be involved with the screening program.

"Nobody really knows what the long-term health consequences will be. The chances of getting cancer probably are relatively low, but we won't know for sure unless they are followed," Dr. Lockey said.

In addition to tracking individual health problems, trends gleaned from the screening program could lead to new recommendations for how to protect workers against harm when responding to future terrorist attacks.

U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, visited Cincinnati Monday to announce the program and meet with several task force members.

"I'm glad you were there. I want to thank you on behalf of the country for your services," Mr. Voinovich told the task force.

E-mail tbonfield@enquirer.com




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