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Asthma, stress disorder still high among 9/11 witnesses

Asthma and post-traumatic stress disorder have not only persisted years after the World Trade Center disaster, but the most traumatized of all are the passersby, tourists and commuters who happened to be in the area when the towers fell.

From a vast registry of people - more than 71,000 - exposed to the fire, smoke and debris that mushroomed over lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, scientists have found lingering effects, and predict problems could persist well into the future.

The registry is the largest post-disaster database compiled in U.S. history, and the first noncombat data from which scientists are discovering how a single incident can spawn ongoing physical and mental health concerns.

"Our take-home message is this: Asthma is elevated in all groups," said Dr. Lorna Thorpe, deputy health commissioner and epidemiologist at the New York City Health Department, referring to emergency personnel, office workers, passersby, tourists and others directly exposed to debris from the site.

Thorpe worked with scientists from Columbia University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to gain a keener picture of 9/11's aftermath and what the future may hold for those who were directly affected.

Post-traumatic stress symptoms were not only real, Thorpe said, they were pervasive.

An estimated 25,000 people in the World Trade Center Health Registry said they developed asthma, but 61,000 reported post-traumatic stress symptoms. A small number of the 61,000 also had asthma. For many, especially passersby, tourists and others at Ground Zero by happenstance, post-traumatic symptoms worsened over time, researchers said.

Registrants answered questions online, on a mail-in form, or by telephone. The study, covering the years 2006 and 2007, is the first of WTC studies to detail symptoms persisting so many years after the disaster.

Reporting in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association, an issue devoted to the effects of violence on the human condition, investigators looked for long-term effects following the collapse of the Twin Towers.

The results provide "the most comprehensive look at the current health of Americans" directly exposed to the disaster, said Robert Brackbill from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the CDC, and the study's lead investigator.

Anthony Szema, of Stony Brook University Medical Center, said the study mirrors similar research he has conducted. "We . . . [will show] asthma rates in children near the World Trade Center are persistently high," he said.

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