Respiratory Illness and PTSD in 9/11 First Responders

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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The preceding article summarizes research or news from periodicals or related source material in the fields of mental health and psychology. did not participate in or condone any studies, or conclucions thereof, that may have been cited. Any views or opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by

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  • Jacob

    May 25th, 2012 at 1:37 PM

    Firefighters really got the short end of the stick when it comes to 9/11 and the suffering from that huh? They were the ones who got in their busted their butts to save so many lives and in return many of them lost their own lives or got illnesses that can’t just be treatted overnight. And this is 10,11 years out, and things are still cropping up.

  • lilly

    May 26th, 2012 at 12:55 AM

    this seems to have gotten people’s attention over ten years after it actually happen.many of these first responders have even passed as a result of these issues.

    are our first responders not given adequate protection during their operations? what are their conditions now? has anything improved? these are also questions that need to be raised.

  • danny dobbs

    May 26th, 2012 at 5:48 AM

    I can’t even begin to imagine the orrors encountered by all of the first responders to the scene on that fateful day. There was mass confusion, terror, and more than likely the realization that many people were not going to make it out of those towers alive. I feel for those who survived as much as I feel for the families who lost friends and loved ones in the days and weeks that followed. If anyone is going to experience trauma from an event, it would have to be those who went in thinking that they could save so many and wound up just trying to fight for one or two ,lives or maybe just their own. How they would sleep at night and get over those nightmares must only be through sheer will because I don’t know that I could get over an experience like that.

  • Paulette

    May 28th, 2012 at 7:12 AM

    I lost my brother in law on that day and my sister lost her husband.
    No, he didn’t die, but I think that a part of him died on the inside on that day.
    He was one of the police officers on the scene. And I really think that it took something out of him that we will never get back.
    I feel for all of them because I know what a struggle it is for that family now, he relives it every day.
    Nut how do we get him to see that he needs help? That therapy would be so beneficial to all of them?

  • linda c

    May 17th, 2015 at 12:34 PM

    i was a volunteer first responder. progressive respiratory issues and all the rest of that package so many of us must deal with.

    i was at the wtc clinic filing out forms and realized it was bringing things up in me i had never thought about. spoken about.. to anyone, what it was like down there, how it felt. i havent allowed myself to feel, touch that… that was three years ago..

    at this moment i am desperate for help in dealing with this , it must come out, and it feels like its killing me as much as the physical.

    at the wtc clinic they refused to give me counseling saying i should go to an emergency room doctor if i so urgently needed i closed it all up again.

    cannot physically go anywhere at this time.

    im asking anyone out there for help in finding counseling by phone or skype. thank you

  • The Team

    The Team

    May 17th, 2015 at 7:15 PM

    Thank you for your comment, Linda. If you would like to consult with mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage,, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. You can search for therapists who can do therapy over the phone or online through our Advanced Search. Just narrow the area to your State, and under “Type of Service,” you can pick “Online Counseling / Phone Therapy.”

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

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