The relatively small health clinic that released the most widely quoted and alarming study about the adverse health impacts of exposure to the World Trade Center environment may have reached its conclusions with weak data and presented its findings in a questionable manner. The New York Times examined the work done at the Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine, a health clinic associated with Mount Sinai Medical Center and that included only six full-time doctors at the time of the terrorist attacks.

The Selikoff Center faced a difficult situation following the attacks. It was functioning primarily as a source of care for workers with conditions like repetitive motion stress injuries before 2001 and had strong ties to labor unions. After the attacks, the Selikoff Center began treating thousands of Ground Zero workers for exposure to possibly toxic dust, with only irregular funding from the federal government and no mandate to conduct a clinical study of their conditions. Now critics are saying that the center crossed the line from observation to advocacy by collecting inconclusive data and reporting it in a misleading manner.

“We were told very unequivocally that we were not being funded to do research,” recalled Dr. Herbert, who has been a part of the of the screening program since its inception. “We were being funded to do screening.”

Without money or time to plan, they started collecting data anyway, knowing that it would be necessary to track the rise of symptoms related to dust exposure. But the medical history questionnaire they pulled together was an unwieldy 74 pages long, full of questions that were too vague to be useful. When combined with X-rays and breathing tests, the examination process took more than three hours and scared off many workers. Some of the data was collected on paper and stored in boxes.

“It took me three months just to figure out where the information was and how it had been kept,” said Dr. Jeanne Mager Stellman, a medical researcher who was hired as deputy director of the data center in April 2006. “I don’t think they knew what they were getting into.”

The Selikoff Center released a study in 2005 using its data that has been criticised for being unnecessarily alarming. The study [pdf format] reported that 69% of participating Ground Zero workers were experiencing new or worsened respiratory symptoms, but came to that finding by combining two categories of health conditions: significant health problems and minor upper respiratory problems like a runny nose or itchy eyes. The latter category was much larger than the significant health problems category.

The Times reports that critics of the Selikoff Center and its report say that the clinic is causing distress to many Ground Zero workers, who are opting out of proven medical treatments in favor of alternative therapies. Statements about the likelihood of the future threat of cancer have also been criticized as baseless at this time and alarmist. The Selikoff Center still retains the support of labor unions that feel the clinic is doing good work and has a good rapport with first responders who go to Mount Sinai for treatment.