MUSC series kicks off with New York Fire Department doctor

David Prezant

Firefighters, police and doctors silenced their cell phones, walkie-talkies and pagers for an hour Tuesday to hear from the man who led the effort to care for rescue workers at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

The Medical University of South Carolina brought in David Prezant, chief medical officer for the New York City Fire Department and co-director of the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Programs, to kick off its inaugural Sept. 11 Commemorative Lecture.

Nearly 3,000 people died in the World Trade Center on 9/11, including 343 firefighters and paramedics -- some of whom ran into the second tower even after watching the first collapse. Prezant pointed out that nearly 20,000 people managed to evacuate the buildings in an hour.

"This is clearly the most successful rescue mission ever," Prezant said.

But it came with a toll on emergency workers' health, a price not entirely known yet.

Even in the morning light, workers at "the pile" couldn't see a foot in front of their faces. Prezant said the World Trade Center dust contained small and large particles and carried an alkaline pH similar to Drano.

On the first day only about 18 percent of New York City Fire Department workers wore a mask of any type, he added. Doctors found uncoated asbestos, degraded fibrous glass and pulverized concrete inside the lungs of one firefighter who sought treatment just a few weeks later.

Ten months later, firefighters produced sputum that contained a material similar to sediment dust, meaning the contaminants were still there.

"This isn't just people with a cough," Prezant said. "This is a real problem."

Though the cough largely went away, other symptoms persisted: sinus congestion, shortness of breath and chest tightness.

Prezant's most recent study revealed that World Trade Center exposure increases a firefighter's likelihood for developing cancer by 19 to 21 percent.

He also noted that mental health problems arose from seeing not only dead bodies but the dead bodies of friends, even brothers. Prezant said firefighters and paramedics who worked the World Trade Center experienced a 20 to 22 percent rate of post-traumatic stress disorder, just shy of the 30 percent range experienced by survivors who escaped the buildings after the terror attacks.

Charleston Fire Department Deputy Chief John Tippett numbered among the nearly two dozen firefighters who came out for Prezant's lecture. Tippett previously worked with Maryland's Urban Search and Rescue team and helped with emergency response at the Pentagon during the terror attack on 9/11.

A few of his firefighter friends in New York receive treatment from Prezant. Although Tippett found the research to be the most interesting part of Prezant's lecture, he came out to learn about firefighter wellness -- "what could happen to all of us," as he put it.

MUSC plans to make Prezant's lecture just the first talk in an annual program. Prezant spoke Tuesday on one condition: that MUSC take the honorary payment toward his expenses and donate it to the Charleston Fire Department.

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or on Twitter at @allysonjbird.