May 5, 2004 -- Scientists are now sure the air at Ground Zero made people sick - and those most affected are firefighters, rescuers and others at the site in the first 12 hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, a new study says.
Some 332 firefighters suffered coughs so bad, they took four or more weeks of sick leave, says the report published yesterday in Environmental Health Perspectives, a government scientific journal.
Some of the coughs were caused by inhaling tiny glass shards in Ground Zero dust. The shards came from pulverized World Trade Center windows.
"We reckon those shards of glass cut up the cells in the respiratory tract on a microscopic level," said Dr. Philip Landrigan of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the study's lead author.
Even in the weeks after the attack, Ground Zero workers breathed concrete dust from the Twin Towers that Landrigan called "very toxic." He said it was akin to applying quick-set concrete to your trachea.
"It caused intense inflammation," he said. "That's what we believe accounts for the coughs and the wheezing and the asthma."
About half of all workers involved in the cleanup over the following months reported at least one new symptom - and one-third of the ironworkers on the job experienced a chronic cough, the report says.
"We are seeing people who still have symptoms 21/2 years later," Landrigan said.
And some may not yet know they are sick.
That's because people who breathed asbestos in the Ground Zero air may not develop cancer until at least 10 years from now, Landrigan said.
About the only good news from the study is that the amount of contaminants dropped off quickly in the hours after the attack, Landrigan said.