Patients Zero

If September 11 became the most scrutinized event in media history, necessitating a full-scale deployment of journalists, it’s also sparked an equally massive – if quieter – mobilization among lab-coat types. Hundreds of scientists are furiously drafting grant proposals and collecting data on everything from post-traumatic stress to the effect of toxins on newborn babies. And their work has turned Manhattan into a giant petri dish.

“There was a lot done after Oklahoma City,” says Dr. Christina Hoven of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, who is looking at the mental-health needs of public-school children, “but never something of this magnitude. It’s a unique opportunity for science, and I consider it a great privilege.”

Recovery workers have, not surprisingly, been the most closely studied subjects. In October, 55 teamsters who drive debris-filled trucks to and from ground zero were outfitted with shoulder-level air-sampling devices (“So it’s at the same level as what they breathe,” says Dr. Regina Santella, also of Mailman). Mount Sinai doctors are examining 100 ironworkers for sinusitis, laryngitis, and asthma. And 300 search-and-rescue dogs are being studied for toxic exposure by the Animal Medical Center.

While such work may represent a unique scientific opportunity, it’s also a methodological conundrum: “It’s not the usual way you do research,” says New York University’s Dr. George Thurston, who has monitored the air at ground zero. “There is no ‘before’ and ‘after.’ Usually, you’re testing a hypothesis with a well-designed control. People are talking about the elevated level of mercury in firefighters. But no one ever tested it before.”

At least two projects are testing pregnant women who were in lower Manhattan in the weeks after the tragedy. At Columbia University, Dr. Frederica Perera will monitor the women’s blood and urine samples and plans to check their infants’ DNA for two years for signs of exposure to burning chemicals. “We’re hoping,” she says, “that the data will be reassuring.”

There’s no shortage of anxiety to gauge (and assuage). Weill Cornell Medical College is studying the effectiveness of different treatments for the “traumatically bereaved.” Another survey is looking at how pediatricians met children’s emotional needs. Such studies are very important, says psychologist Robin Gurwitch, who’s been examining the effect of the Oklahoma City bombing on that city’s children for the past six years: “The literature on children and trauma is fairly sparse, and most of it involves countries where acts of violence are common, like Israel.”

Dr. Rachel Yehuda, director of the Bronx VA Hospital’s traumatic-stress division, plans to take “a nice mix of post-traumatic-stress and/or depression” candidates to help determine which treatment is more effective – regular therapy or “exposure therapy,” in which patients recount an event so many times that they eventually lose the feeling of panic associated with it. “Some people,” she says, “have literally become afraid of their memories. They avoid them. Which would be fine, except then you start avoiding lower Manhattan. And then you think, Maybe I don’t need to go to Manhattan at all.”

Indeed, many New Yorkers are torn between welcoming these studies and wanting to shut out anything associated with the attacks. And some are skeptical of any results, particularly the EPA’s initial conclusion that the air is safe. (Last week, the agency vowed to test the air indoors.) “But mostly, people don’t know what to be afraid of,” says Dr. Joan Reibman, director of Bellevue’s asthma program. “The thing is, we will never find all the answers.”

“My God, that’s frightening,” says one resident of Independence Plaza upon learning that Reibman plans to study 2,000 residents of lower Manhattan. “But I’d do it if they’d HepaVac my apartment.”

Patients Zero