TUESDAY, Sept. 11 (HealthDay News) -- No one doubts the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center disaster on rescue and cleanup workers' hearts, lungs and minds.
First, workers inhaled a toxic cocktail of soot, metals and other particles deep into their lungs during 12-hour shifts that lasted for weeks. There was also the psychological toll the cleanup effort took -- especially on those least prepared to deal with it.
"There were quite powerful stories of workers who would receive a load of debris and be dumping and find, for example, a human hand in it. And then not to be able to adequately process what it was that they were experiencing," said Alison Geyh, an environmental health scientist at Johns Hopkins University who spent weeks at the site -- an experience she said often left her shaken.
When it comes to the long-term health impact on workers, however, nothing remains certain, despite numerous highly publicized reports from government and private agencies.
"It's a real commentary that here we can have the largest manmade catastrophe of this sort for which we have so little environmental data," said Jeanne Stellman, now a professor of preventive medicine at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, in New York City.
"That's really a sad commentary on how we handled it," said Stellman, who took part in a landmark Mount Sinai Medical Center study as the deputy director of Mount Sinai's Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine in New York City.
The study released by the center just before the five-year anniversary of 9/11 found that 69 percent of 9,442 responders examined reported "new or worsened respiratory symptoms."
Almost half -- 46.5 percent -- of responders suffered more serious lower respiratory symptoms, including phlegm-laden "World Trade Center cough," the study found. Just under 63 percent said they have suffered from milder symptoms since cleanup wrapped up in April 2006, such as itchy eyes or runny noses.
And at least two people have died from illnesses experts have linked to 9/11 exposures. Felicia Dunn-Jones, a 42-year-old lawyer, succumbed to a disease resembling sarcoidosis five months after the attacks, and James Zadroga, a 34-year-old New York City police detective, died of pulmonary disease early in 2006.
Other studies have also suggested at least short-term respiratory effects, including a New York City Department of Health study released last month that found first responders to the attack now have a risk for asthma that is 12 times that of the general population.
But the available data may never be adequate to reveal the whole picture, experts said.
"First of all, we know nothing about the types of contaminants that were present in the days following the event, because there was no monitoring in place," Geyh said.
Her team's study, published in May in the New England Journal of Medicine, found relatively high levels of fine particles under 2.5 micrometers in diameter in air samples taken at Ground Zero in late September and October, 2001. These tiny particles can lodge deep in the lungs, potentially causing health problems for years to come.