Health effects on Firefighters of 9 11

Debris on street on 9 11

Hi, it’s the Spanish OSHA Guy. After writing my previous blog post about George Fregeau’s 2993 American flags honoring 9/11 and after seeing a documentary about firefighters in 9/11, I wanted to research about the health effects that have manifested in firefighters and many others over the past decade. In the documentary I watched on CBS Sunday 9-11-11, they said that two days after 9/11/01, the EPA encouraged the use of respirators, but at the same time said that the air was safe. (I was left wondering if they meant the air was safe for a citizen walking on the streets of Manhattan or for the firefighters digging through the rubble day after day. The context was clearly for the firefighters.) Also in the documentary, they showed a press conference nearly two weeks after 9/11/01 where Mayor Giuliani also said the air was safe for workers.

Today, 10 years later the most troubling affect on those working at ground zero and the most lasting effect on these heroes is PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is according to NYC.gov.  Asbestos, mercury, lead, silica (rock dust) all killed people at 9/11/01 and continue to kill people because of the cancers and lung problems they cause in 40, 50 and 60-year-olds. (Just think of how many mercury fluorescent light bulbs were in the towers!!) But PTSD remains the most common health effect of 9/11. PTSD is a terrible and true disorder that people suffer when they experience or witness trauma like a murder, rape, torture or other heinous event. The New York City website has a very good summary with many links. Click here to view their webpage that talks about PTSD and 9/11.

They write that 19% of adults (almost 1 in 5) reported post-traumatic stress symptoms 5 – 6 years after 9/11/01. That is “roughly 4 times the rate typically found in the general population”. Consider the firefighters that survived their 343 colleagues. Each day the NYC fire dept. put out a list of confirmed dead. This went on for days and days and days. Then all the funerals. Then -for many- the nightmares. Then still 4, 7, and now 10 years later there are more funerals because 40, 50 and 60-year-olds are now dying of cancers and lung diseases. That NYC website reports an increase in suicide among all exposed groups and that there was “little to no social support after 9/11” for PTSD. Since then -the CBS documentary reported- that some firefighters began to talk about what happened that day and what they were keeping inside all these years suffering alone. Many accepted counseling and have made great improvements.

So, what can we learn from the suffering of many survivors and from the heroes who worked daily from the morning of 9/11/01 through the many weeks and months that followed? I don’t like it when people present a problem and then leave it at that, giving no solutions or suggestions for improvement. So, considering the two major health effects (respiratory problems and PTSD) here are my simple takeaways:

  1. Anytime you, your friends, family or your employees work in a visible dust cloud for an extended period of time (like the firefighters did digging day after day among the rubble and stirring up all the contaminates); the air is NOT safe!  I don’t care who tells you it is safe. Ask to see the reports of the air quality metering, look at reports, have them explained to you, ask to understand why or why they are not within OSHA’s safe limits. The only way to tackle dust or air contaminants is to control the dust down with ventilation, wetting it down or with some advanced system like an air scrubber. Then the last resort is a respirator. This requires a qualified person (for purposes of this article we’ll say that “qualified person” means someone who knows what the heck they are talking about) to choose the correct respirator and then 2 things must happen before a person works with the respirator:  A fit test and a medical exam. Later on this month I promise to write another article on fit tests and medical exams.
  2. Anytime you, your friends, family or your employees experience trauma like we mentioned above: death, rape, car accident or other heinous event; do not accept it when they say they are “okay” or “fine”. Give them time, be gentle, be patient, be prayerful about it, but always continue to show them love, support and eventually get to them to talk to you, a counselor, a pastor, a doctor or another trusted person. The American Heart Association when talking about helping in a CPR situation warns about these very emotions that even professional rescuers experience and have shown that they cannot predict how they will react after experiencing an intense or traumatic event.

My intention in this blog post is to give honor to these heroes and their families, while benefitting everyone else by learning from their suffering so perhaps we won’t experience such health effects in our lives. All my best, Steven St. Laurent

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