Firefighters, police, and emergency medical personnel spent countless hours at ground zero in the weeks following 9/11. They were exposed to trauma, stress, and toxins that caused mental and physical health damage. The World Trade Center (WTC) Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program (WTC-MMTP) reported that almost half of the first responders they treated had respiratory problems in the year following 9/11. Rates of posttraumatic stress (PTSD) were nearly three times that of non-WTC emergency workers. Respiratory function and PTSD are the two most prevalent consequences among the WTC workers. Understanding their impact on each other could influence the direction of treatment programs for these workers.
Benjamin J. Luft of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the State University of New York at Stony Brook sought to determine the rate of comorbidity of PTSD and respiratory illness among WTC workers compared to other first responders. He recently led a study that examined the medical data from the WTC-MMTP. The data were from 8,508 police officers and over 12,000 nonpolice emergency personnel. After analyzing the data, Luft found that the police had much lower rates of PTSD than the nonpolice responders, 5.9% compared to 23%. He also discovered that they had slightly lower rates of respiratory illness as well, 22% compared to 28%. These findings suggest that exposure to the dust cloud at ground zero is related to both PTSD and respiratory problems. But whether the cloud resulted in respiratory problems that exacerbated PTSD symptoms or whether the PTSD symptoms increased respiratory impairment is still unclear. Luft said, “Regardless of which came first, PTSD or respiratory symptoms, our findings emphasize that mental health screening is as essential as screening for respiratory symptoms.” In sum, the results of this study provide support for existing treatment approaches that focus on both the physical and psychological damage resulting from the aftermath of 9/11.
Luft, B. J., Schechter, C., Kotov, R., Broihier, J., Reissman, D. (2012). Exposure, probable PTSD and lower respiratory illness among World Trade Center rescue, recovery and clean-up workers. Psychological Medicine, 42.5, 1069-1079.
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