Within months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, many first responders began experiencing hard coughing, followed by a loss of breath. This coughing caused throat irritation. Another related symptom was acid reflux, or heartburn. World Trade Center (WTC) cough was the first 9/11-related injury to be recognized. This was only one of the chronic, debilitating respiratory illnesses that have emerged in the decade following the event.
Mt. Sinai Medical Center published the results of a large-scale study of 10,000 rescue workers in 2006 that found respiratory problems in 70 percent of this population, including:
- Dry cough
- Chest tightness
- Throat irritation
- Diminished lung capacity
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Upper respiratory problems, such as sinusitis — sinus inflammation caused by an allergy or auto-immune reaction, and throat irritation were reported by 62.5 percent of study participants. A smaller percent, 46.5, experienced lower airway symptoms, such as the chest tightness, dry cough and wheezing associated with WTC cough.
A 2010 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found a substantial loss of lung function in firefighters and EMS personnel who were on site in the first weeks after 9/11. More disturbing, there was little improvement six years after exposure, suggesting that the damage was permanent.
These studies focused on rescue workers, but anyone who lived or worked in the vicinity of ground zero is at risk for pulmonary illness or other diseases. They may be eligible for financial relief so they can get the medical care they need.