Starting in early 2002, firefighters who responded to the World Trade Center on that awful day the previous September began reporting what became labeled "World Trade Center Cough." Since then, numerous other first responders, later responders, and people who simply lived in the general WTC area have also reported a variety of respiratory and other ills.
Clearly, these people are suffering. But are they suffering from a variety of toxins or alleged toxins that filled the air after the fiery explosions, or is their problem stress-caused psychogenic illness with perhaps some non-psychogenic illness mixed in?
Some scientific papers indicate stress as a major factor. But the media always favor the multiple toxin or "environmental illness" theory, and now insist as a chorus that a new report from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives has settled it.
"Many who worked at Ground Zero in the early days after the attacks have sustained serious and lasting health problems as a direct result of their exposure to the environment there," Dennis Charney, Mount Sinai's dean for academic and scientific affairs, said in a statement issued with the study.
What the report found was that 69 percent of some 9,500 responders said they suffered new or worsened breathing problems at the time of their WTC work. Further, in 59 percent symptoms persisted until their examinations (conducted from 2002 to 2004). But these are self-reported claims with no way of verifying them.
The best indication these people have real symptoms is that, among non-smoking responders, twice as many had abnormal readings on spirometer (a device that accurately measures your ability to breathe) as the general population.
Case closed? Not by a long shot.
One glaring problem is that those 9.500 evaluated in the Mount Sinai study aren't a representative sample of responders, merely an assessment of from a total of about 40,000.
That is, this is not an epidemiological study that “would want a group of people who are selected using a sampling design, where the group represents a study population," observes John Fairbank, co-director of the UCLA-Duke University Medical Center National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. "This doesn't."
This study looked only at the minority of responders who came to Mount Sinai to have their health monitored. People who participate in such medical studies tend to do so because they believe they're sick. So you can't make any meaningful comparisons to responders who didn't volunteer for the study or to the general public. This problem alone wholly invalidates the significance Mount Sinai and the media gave the report.
But what about those spirometer readings? All this device (invented 150 years ago) can do is measure breathing capacity. And labored breathing is a main symptom of psychogenic illness.
Ultimately, nothing in the report offers the least shred of evidence that the suffering responders aren't by and large suffering from psychogenic illness. Commonly misinterpreted as meaning "it's all in your heads," this actually means the symptoms can be quite real and debilitating but that they originated with stress. September 11 is synonymous with stress for the entire nation, and certainly far more so for the responders.
Medical annals are filled with incidents of mass psychogenic illness hysteria. For example, in Kosovo in 1990 at least 4,000 residents suffered a mystery illness that began at a high school. Observed researchers: "An outbreak of respiratory infection within a single class appears to have triggered fears that Serbs may have dispensed poison." They hadn't. Rumors of Israeli-spread poison gas caused a similar mass outbreak of illness among West Bank Palestinians in 1983.
That brings us to perhaps the most distressing aspect of the WTC outbreak.
In addition to the trauma experienced at the WTC site, the best explanation for these ills is that they have been induced by the media and select scientists who steadily beat the drum insisting responders ought to be sick. The bastion of these scientists since 2002 has been – surprise! – Mount Sinai.
Indeed, no other institution is more associated with pushing the oddball theory of “environmental illness” that this one. Mount Sinai and the sycophantic media are no friends of those brave men and women who rushed to the World Trade Center on 9/11 or helped in the cleanup; they are their tormenters.
Our heroes deserve our compassion and help for their WTC-related illnesses, whether psychogenic or not. But true compassion begins with informing them there is no scientific evidence indicating they should be sicker than anyone else.