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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ground Zero Dogs

Air Date: Week of

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Canines who reported for search and rescue duty at Ground Zero after September 11 were exposed to the same pollutants as the people who worked there. Host Steve Curwood talks with University of Pennsylvania veterinarian Cynthia Otto about the study she is launching to examine long-term health impacts on the dogs.


CURWOOD: Among the hardest workers at Ground Zero were a few hundred search and rescue dogs. Researchers are now beginning to study what the long term health effects of working at the site might be for those animals. Cynthia Otto is a veterinarian and associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania who helped care for the dogs at the site. Dr. Otto, the canines were working side-by-side with human handlers and emergency workers, but you say the dogs are more vulnerable to long term health effects. Why is that?

DR. OTTO: Probably the biggest reason is the lack of protective clothing. The dogs didn't have respirators, the dogs didn't wear booties, and their skin was protected by fur but not by the heavy coats and other protective clothing that people were able to wear. In addition, they were closer to the ground, so they were really exposed to quite a bit of the substances that were there and potentially toxic.

CURWOOD: And, of course, their job there was to sniff.

Photo: Dr. Cindy OttoRescue dogs at the World Trade Center.
(Photo: Dr. Cindy Otto)

DR. OTTO: Yes, absolutely.

CURWOOD: Why is the study necessary?

DR. OTTO: The primary things that we're looking for are evidence of toxic change. Because they didn't wear respirators the lungs are a primary spot. So we're doing chest
x-rays on these dogs, looking for any signs of abnormalities, or even the early development of cancer, and screening for the liver and the kidneys and in the blood chemistries, looking for any changes there. In addition, we're screening the dogs for lead and mercury, PCB's and other organic chemicals.

CURWOOD: Are any of the dogs depressed?

DR. OTTO: Depression is a really touchy area, because the dogs don't truly get depressed. It may seem sort of crass, but they don't really care if the victim is alive or dead. If they're trained to find cadavers or dead victims, then when they're successful they're very happy because they get rewarded and that's good. And so the depression question is probably-- we're trying to make the dogs too much like us, and trying to reflect our own feelings. Now, some of the dogs lose interest because they're not getting rewarded. Some of the dogs are responding to the handlers, who are struggling to try and keep things positive.

CURWOOD: Now, once you gather all this information over, what, the next three years or so, at least, you're going to run this study, how are you going to use it?

DR. OTTO: First of all, we're going to try and learn how there is an association. If the dogs that are trained one way may have lower incidents of problems than others, then that will help us. If the dogs that worked longer shifts with fewer breaks had more incidents of problems, that's going to help us produce some guidelines. And what we'd like to do is come up with a consensus conference on what the best way is in the future to either train these dogs or deploy the dogs. So, how should we structure it? Should they be allowed to do these 12 and 16 and sometimes 24 hour shifts, or do we need to say for everyone's health and also for the productivity of the dogs, do we need to limit this, and do we make these kinds of recommendations?

CURWOOD: Cynthia Otto is a veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania. Thanks for filling us in on your study today, Dr. Otto.

DR. OTTO: My pleasure, Steve.

[MUSIC: L'il Bow Wow, "What's My Name"]




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