For many who responded to Handschuh’s survey, merely admitting a dust-related ailment raised the fear that it could derail their careers. Thirty percent said that their health problems had affected their careers, and about the same percentage felt that their emotional problems were interfering with their work. And here’s the key to understanding ground zero’s impact on journalists: nearly half of those who responded (45 percent) said they had been tempted to turn down an assignment that might trigger unwanted emotions. Yet only 25 percent said they had actually refused to take the assignment.
Like most 9/11 health surveys, this one suffers from its reliance on self-reported data. The exception is the New York City fire department, where each firefighter undergoes a yearly physical. That makes it possible to compare pre-9/11 and post-9/11 conditions. The results seem to support some of Handschuh’s findings. Fire-department doctors have found, for instance, that many firefighters lost in one year the amount of lung capacity that they might have been expected to lose over the course of a dozen years.
Photographer Keith Silverman is a freelance cameraman with his own video company who worked regularly with 20/20 and other abc network programs. On September 11, he was preparing to shoot the Fashion Week show at Bryant Park; when the first jet smashed into the north tower, a producer sent him to the trade center. Silverman spent that night and most of the following week videoing firefighters pulling bodies from the trade-center rubble. In all, he worked in the smoke and dust for three months without protective gear. Silverman, who is six-feet tall and weighs 260 pounds, says that it wasn’t until 2004 that he first started noticing strange skin rashes on his arms and back. At that time, he was going through a divorce and had lost his health insurance. A friend who is a nurse urged him to see a doctor about the mysterious lumps on his neck and chest. He did, and the tests came back positive for stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He was forty-seven at the time. A subsequent CAT scan revealed that he also had pulmonary fibrosis.
Silverman says he didn’t expect help from ABC because he was a freelancer, and he was right. It was too late for him to file for workers’ compensation in New York. His only option was Social Security disability, but the legal process has been long and grueling. He’s been turned down twice, and is appealing his case to a judge. He’s also joined the thousands of responders who are suing the city of New York for negligence in the aftermath of 9/11.
Silverman could have gotten help from Mount Sinai’s monitoring program, but after he signed up for it, he moved to Atlantic City and never went. At least 113 people who describe themselves as journalists, photographers, or camera operators are among the people enrolled in Mount Sinai’s various 9/11 programs. Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, who oversees the programs, says the journalists are “showing pretty much the same problems at roughly the same proportions as anyone else who was down there.” Those problems include asthma, sinusitis, interstitial lung diseases, acid reflux, and post-traumatic stress.
One of the important findings from Mount Sinai and other studies is that many people who were exposed to the dust in the first few days developed the same complex set of related illnesses. My friend Keith Meyers is one of them. We worked together for more than two decades at The New York Times. He is an avid boater who has covered many stories in and around New York’s harbor. After 9/11, he used his contacts to talk his way aboard a Coast Guard helicopter that flew over ground zero. He was in the air, with his camera out the open door, as the chopper hovered over the burning debris pile in the days immediately after the collapse. The smoke and gasses from the raging fires mixed with the dust and ash from the collapsed towers in ways that scientists believe made breathing that air at that time particularly hazardous. Meyers wore no protective gear, but he came back with prize-winning photographs.
By 2006, Meyers was barely able to work. He had come down with the whole range of trade-center symptoms—the persistent dry cough, recurring asthma, gastrointestinal reflux disease, and emotional distress. Although he had photographed many grisly events in his career, Meyers was unnerved by the images from 9/11 and the lingering physical impact the dust had on him. He was put on restricted duty, but in time, as his physical problems mounted, even that proved too stressful.