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| August 5, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

MISSOULA — Rescue workers at ground zero of the World Trade Center attacks received "tremendous health problems," the scope of which researchers are only now beginning to understand.

Stephen Levin of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City spoke June 28 at an asbestos health conference here to outline ongoing problems volunteers, firefighters and police face from working as "a haze of particulate material" filled the air.

Asbestos, which measured in high numbers at ground zero, was one of many toxic substances to which the workers were exposed. Other substances included cement and gypsum, heavy metals and acid mists.

"Implosion rendered all construction materials pulverized," Levin said. "Everything was reduced to rubble, and the great majority of the firefighters were not wearing respiratory equipment. Pulverized gray dust permeated Manhattan."

In addition, Levin said 100,000 liters of jet fuel burned, causing what he termed "an extremely unstable situation." Blood-borne pathogens were present, he said, as "people were ripped asunder."

Many attending the conference were surprised that rescue workers didn't wear respirators in what clearly was a hazardous situation. Levin said the federal Environmental Protection Agency contributed to the problem by saying air quality was not that bad.

"EPA gave an excuse for everyone not to wear one," Levin said. He added that "advice from the New York City Department of Health left a lot to be desired" as to whether it was safe for residents to return to apartment buildings days after the attacks.

There were other factors involved in why professionals and laymen labored without respirators, Levin said. Firefighters wear oxygen apparatus for about 15 minutes when entering a house, but the World Trade Center operation was much different.

"They were working 12- to 16-hour shifts," Levin said. "You're working on a hot pile where you have to communicate with other people."

He described the rescue and response workers as "a wild and woolly group of professionals. In a disaster response situation, it's like the Wild West."

Levin, who is a consultant to Libby's CARD clinic, said an estimated 10,000 Fire Department of New York personnel and about 30,000 other workers and volunteers were exposed to numerous psychological stressors, environmental toxins, and other physical hazards.

Concerns for their welfare prompted the Centers for Disease Control's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to establish a medical screening program. It offered free medical assessments, clinical referrals, and occupational health education for the responders.

Almost 12,000 people were evaluated from July 2002 until August 2004. Tests showed "a substantial proportion" developed new or worsened lower and upper respiratory symptoms which lasted for months after their response work stopped.

Three-fourths of the responders had chest problems such as wheezing or shortness of breath. One-third could not fully fill their lungs with air.

Psychological effects included depression and post traumatic stress disorder.

"One half of our patients had significant psychological stress," Levin said. "There was a constant drumbeat of concern for effects of 9-11 in our patients."