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9/11… from a public health lens

A date which will (and does) live in world history. In the initial attack, 2,996 died: 265 on four planes (including terrorists), 2,606 in the World Trade Center and surrounding area (including 343 firefighters, 71 police officers) and 125 at the Pentagon. These numbers, rightfully so, are shared annually across social media.

With any national disaster though, whether it be intentional (9/11) or unintentional (Hurricane Sandy), the public health impact extends beyond deaths from the initial attack (think cancer, suicide) and beyond death (think disease). There is a ripple effect that causes physical and mental health problems for decades.

Months following 9/11, public health experts set up the World Trade Center Health Registry; basically, a database meant to document the short- and long-term effects of 9/11 from people on the ground. The registry was voluntary for people who lived, worked, or went to school in the area, or were involved in rescue and recovery efforts. More than 71,000 people signed up and, thus far, have been interviewed four times: 2002, 2007, 2011, and 2015.

Because of this registry, environmental and/or disaster epidemiologists are able to describe the health ripple effect of 9/11. In the past 19 years, what have they found?

People in the registry were/are more likely to have:

  • Lung damage (asthma, indoor allergens and airway hyperactivity, pulmonary fibrosis)
  • Autoimmune disease (called sarcoidosis, basically when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body)
  • Brain conditions (peripheral neuropathy; think prickling, burning or aching pain in the limbs)
  • Cancer (and specifically thyroid cancer)
  • Mental health disorders (PTSD, cognitive impairment, memory loss)
  • Lower quality of life (early retirement, poor quality of sleep)
  • Less likely to seek healthcare services

So, on this day of reflection, what can we do from a public health perspective?

  • Continue to support the Victim Compensation Plan those that survived, but continue to suffer, from 9/11 (this plan was under attack last year)
  • Continue to fund this research (which is currently funded by the state of NY and CDC). The data from this has been used to: 1) help participants make informed decisions about their own health; 2) provide health researchers with information on what may happen in future disasters; 3) help doctors who may treat people affected by 9/11; and 4) understand gaps in healthcare.

Love, YLE

Data Sources: There are over 200 peer-reviewed articles regarding the health impact of 9/11, which can be found here: https://www1.nyc.gov/site/911health/researchers/research-studies.page

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