Mar. 21, 2002 PHILADELPHIA – When the World Trade Center and sections of the Pentagon came crashing down Sept. 11, the rubble left for rescuers was laden with asbestos, diesel fuel, PCBs and countless other toxins. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have now begun a three-year study of the search-and-rescue mission’s effects on rescue dogs and their handlers.
Comprised of veterinary researchers and psychologists, the team will focus on the physical and psychological toll, possibly sounding an early alert on ailments to watch for among those who have toiled to clear the wreckage.
"Few dogs at the World Trade Center and Pentagon suffered acute injuries, but during the next three years we expect them to serve as our sentinels on long-term consequences," said lead researcher Cynthia M. Otto, associate professor of critical care in Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. "We may see health effects that will follow in humans 10 or 20 years from now."
Because the canine teams put in an average seven to 10 days at sites thick with potentially carcinogenic chemicals, Otto’s team will pay particular attention to the incidence of cancer.
"These dogs were exposed to huge amounts of known toxins and unthinkable amounts of unknown ones," Otto said.
Melissa Hunt, associate director of clinical training in Penn’s Department of Psychology, will lead the associated study of dog handlers. Patterns of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder among this small group of personnel, Hunt said, would likely be replicated among the thousands of others who have combed the ruins of the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
"We’re very concerned that many volunteers, particularly those with no formal training in search and rescue, may have difficulty putting their experiences behind them," said Hunt, who has studied depression and anxiety disorders. "Rescuers who helped clean up after the Oklahoma City bombing have experienced unusually high rates of divorce, sleep disorders and other trauma-related signs of stress."
Hunt will survey the dog handlers at regular intervals through 2004, focusing on emotional and behavioral health outcomes and factors contributing to risk and resilience, including personality traits and prior history of trauma; external factors such as social support and the stability of marriages; and hints of clinically significant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. For those showing signs of ongoing difficulties, Hunt’s team will offer assistance in the form of modified exposure therapy, which involves writing about one’s experiences to help put the trauma into context.
Otto’s study involves more than 200 search dogs and handlers from across the U.S. Some were part of trained rescue teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, while others arrived unannounced in New York and at the Pentagon as part of the nationwide outpouring of support.
The FEMA dogs will undergo intensive, periodic examinations by their local veterinarians. Dogs brought in by private individuals will be assessed through surveys of their handlers. The questionnaires will focus on behavioral disorders, such as aggression or fearfulness, that may have been induced by long hours of work without adequate play or the reward of finding live victims.
Support for the study comes from the AKC Canine Health Foundation, the American Kennel Club, Ralston Purina Co., Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. The study also includes researchers at Michigan State University and the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
Otto is still seeking rescue dogs who worked at either the World Trade Center or Pentagon to participate in the study. Handlers of such dogs can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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