Could Ground Zero dust threaten the health of Wall Street workers years later?

Kathleen O’Brien NJ Advance Media for NJ.com 

Dave Innocenti was one of those guys in the color-coded smocks working on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, shouting and waving as he executed multi-million-dollar deals.

On his feet all day, he stayed in shape by biking, running, and lifting weights.

David Innocenti, of Holmdel, has been rendered nearly housebound by rheumatoid arthritis. In the wake of a recent study linking Ground Zero exposure to autoimmune diseases, Innocenti wonders if his time at the New York Stock Exchange may have had a role in his illness. (Russ DeSantis | For NJ Advance Media)

David Innocenti, of Holmdel, has been rendered nearly housebound by rheumatoid arthritis. In the wake of a recent study linking Ground Zero exposure to autoimmune diseases, Innocenti wonders if his time at the New York Stock Exchange may have had a role in his illness. (Russ DeSantis | For NJ Advance Media)

These days, Innocenti can’t even make it to the end of his driveway to get his mail. He walks with a cane, the pain from his hips pitching his torso forward at an awkward angle. His Holmdel home has an electric chairlift to carry him up stairs. He’s 58.

He had to retire early – way early – when he developed rheumatoid arthritis about five years ago.

Only now is he learning his illness may be related to the September 11th terrorist attacks.

just-released study revealed an unusually high number of autoimmune diseases – including rheumatoid arthritis – affecting firefighters and other first responders to Ground Zero. The disease is uncommon in men.

Researchers called it an unexpected legacy that joins a long list of ailments plaguing workers. While respiratory problems manifested themselves within months [sic – days] of the cleanup, the autoimmune conditions didn’t show up until years later, the study revealed.

Unlike police, firefighters and other first responders, the health of Financial District workers remains largely unstudied nearly 15 years after the attacks. They were not working at the smoldering attack site, overseeing rescue followed by clean-up. Yet many were just a few blocks away, where they would continue to work in the ensuing months.

“When we came out of the Exchange that day, there was this dust. People had to pull their shirts over their faces,” Innocenti said of September 11. “We thought it was just dust, but it was so much more. Who’s to say what that cloud was?”

WHAT WAS IN GROUND ZERO DUST:

  • Pulverized cement
    • Glass fibers
    • Silica
    • Asbestos
    • Lead
    • Aromatic hydrocarbons
    • Polychlorinated biphenyls
    • Polychlorinated furans
    • Dioxins

Source: Journal of Arthritis & Rheumatology

When he and his coworkers returned to work the Monday after the attack, dust coated all the surfaces inside the Stock Exchange, he recalled.

Innocenti felt he had to go back to work (“If you refused, you wouldn’t have had a job to go back to”), yet he also shared Wall Street’s goal of making a statement: “We went back to work because we were the ones making the wheels turn to keep the economy going,” he said. “It was a show of strength to the world that we could keep going.”

Although he and other commuters walked past the World Trade Center ruins each day, there was little thought at the time to their health, he said.

“I don’t think anyone was saying at the time, ‘I might get sick from this,'” he said. “You didn’t consider the long-term effects until your legs didn’t work.”

Autoimmune diseases are not yet on the list of 9/11-linked ailments covered by the 2011 Zadroga Act, which provides health screening and free treatment for first responders as well as Lower Manhattan workers and residents, which includes the Financial District.

Autoimmune diseases may be added, as the World Trade Center Health Program recently announced it is considering making them a “covered illness.”

If a condition is added, it usually takes about six months for all the federal rules to be put in place, said Christina Spring, spokeswoman for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which administers the program. “We understand we can’t have people waiting 20 years to get an answer.”

“You didn’t consider the long-term effects until your legs didn’t work.”

Lower Manhattan workers, residents and students can join the health-monitoring program, but the rules are stricter for them than for Ground Zero workers. They must first be diagnosed with a covered illness, which means people like Innocenti cannot yet have their health formally monitored or treated. By contrast, first responders can join at any time, regardless of their health.

Anyone who lived, worked, or attended school in this designated area around Ground Zero may qualify for monitoring or treatment if their health condition is considered related to the 9/11 attack. (World Trade Center Health Program)Kathleen O'Brien | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Anyone who lived, worked, or attended school in this designated area around Ground Zero may qualify for monitoring or treatment if their health condition is considered related to the 9/11 attack. (World Trade Center Health Program)Kathleen O’Brien | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Workers and residents comprise a pool of more than 400,000 people by one estimate. Just 8,000 are in the health monitoring program.

Innocenti says he doesn’t particularly want to sue anyone, but he would welcome some help in paying for his medication. He’s on disability, has gout, osteoporosis, needs two hip replacements, and his co-pay for the prescription drug Humira is $800 a month.

He looked into applying to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which is separate from the health program. It awarded money to the victims of the attacks, or their surviving families. It was put in place within days of the attacks as a means of compensating families while protecting the affected airlines from a barrage of lawsuits.

The main deadline for applying came and went before research even hinted at a suggested link between Ground Zero exposure and autoimmune ailments such as Innocenti’s.

With the Zadroga Act, however, the fund was reopened to accommodate people who had illnesses that took years to show up. The deadline for those cases is October, 2016, said a spokeswoman.

But in order for someone like Innocenti to get treatment or compensation, rheumatoid arthritis has to be added to the fund’s list.

In recent years, several forms of cancer have been added to the list as being likely associated with the World Trade Center location. For other diseases – including cardiovascular disease, acoustic neuroma and a form of cirrhosis – the evidence of any link has been deemed insufficient.

By the tenth anniversary of the attacks, physicians already knew they were seeing cancer rates that were 15 percent higher among survivors, said Iris Udasin, head of the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program, at Rutgers – Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick.

That means if a group of regular people would develop 100 cases of cancer, a comparable group of 9/11 survivors would develop 115 cases.

There is no way, however, to tell whether any individual patient got cancer as a result of his Ground Zero experience, or whether he would’ve gotten it anyway, Udasin said. “As a doctor, I’m on the side of treating everybody, not just the people who we know for sure have a case that’s related,” she said.

As for rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases, Udasin thinks the scientific evidence will eventually be compelling enough to get it on the fund’s list.

She doesn’t find it a stretch to conclude Wall Street workers like Innocenti could have a Ground Zero-related illness even though they didn’t work right at the site.

“If this guy went back and forth to the Financial District and he was there every day, getting off the subway and walking right by all the smoke, he might very well have been exposed for a very long time,” she said.

The Rutgers site is designated to monitor and treat first responders only, a group that also includes custodial workers. Workers like Innocenti are monitored at the World Trade Center Environmental Health Center at Bellevue Hospital.

“It sounds like they’ve got open arms,” Innocenti said after hearing about the program. “That’s great. That really helps me.”

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