Herbal remedy for 9/11 illness draws unusal funding request

Herbal remedy for 9/11 illness draws unusal funding request

Posted by By Lisa Schneider April 23, 2007 8:37AM

Categories: Breaking News

After the 9/11 attacks, when firefighters and other responders began feeling the effects of breathing in toxic dust at Ground Zero, a small group of people began a project to give these workers free herbal treatments based on the ancient Indian alternative therapy of Ayurveda.
Today, more than 400 firefighters and others swear by the treatments, which involve taking four pills composed of 12-to-20 different herbs each twice a day, and vow they are feeling healthier than they did after undergoing Western remedies for their ailments.
Now Councilman Michael McMahon (D-North Shore), is requesting city funding for Serving Those Who Serve, which aims to get $232,400 from city coffers to help pay for Ayurvedic therapies.
That request for public money raises questions about whether tax-payers' money should be used for health programs that haven't scientifically been proven effective.
"I myself took it," said Paul Cinquemani, vice president of FDNY's Retirees of Staten Island, who was among the estimated 100 Islanders who have received the pills from the Serving Those Who Serve program. "It took about five months or so. I used to have a tremendous amount of phlegm that seems to have disappeared."
Serving Those Who Serve was formed soon after 9/11, when a volunteer health worker approached Pankaj Naram, a respected Ayurvedic practitioner in India, for advice on how to detoxify from being exposed to the toxic dust and debris released after the attacks.
Naram volunteered to devise an herbal formula specifically targeted to healing people who worked, volunteered or lived around Ground Zero. Today, the Manhattan-based program is run by a group of about two dozen volunteers.
"This is a program that we're trying to get support for in the City Council," said Kristen Zak, deputy chief of staff for McMahon. "This seems like a worthy effort." 

SKEPTICS RAISE CONCERNS
Dr. Charles Kim, director of medical acupuncture in the anesthesthiology department at Mount Sinai Medical Center, said that scientific research has not yet revealed conclusive benefits to Ayurvedic treatments.
"There's really little evidence to support it," said Dr. Kim, who has worked with numerous 9/11 first responders.
Citing information from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a branch of the federal National Institutes of Health, Dr. Kim said, "Most clinical trials of Ayurvedic approaches have been small, had problems with research designs, lacked appropriate control groups, or had other issues that affected how meaningful the results were."
In addition, metals such as lead have been found in some Ayurvedic treatments, the production of which isn't overseen by any national regulatory agency.
"There's no real standard so far set up," Dr. Kim said. "The risks outweigh the benefits at this point."
In the past few years, the health effects of Sept. 11 on first responders, downtown residents and workers have become increasingly evident.
Doctors are increasingly linking respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments to the toxic dust released by the Twin Towers' collapse; politicians are increasingly requesting funding to help people rendered disabled after the attacks.
While money has started funneling toward some treatment programs, some 9/11 volunteers, first responders and downtown residents say they still aren't getting the funds they need to cover extensive medical bills.
Serving Those Who Serve raises a new question: How far should public money go toward supporting remedies that aren't proven medically, but that people find useful?
"The health issues emerging from Ground Zero exposure are unique, and they require us to provide a broad array of services to monitor and treat the sick and injured," said Rep. Vito Fossella (R-Staten Island/Brooklyn), who also received a letter from STWS. "We are currently reviewing the request from Serving Those Who Serve to learn more about the program."

NO SIDE EFFECTS
An independent poll of about 240 of the STWS's 400 participants found that on average, they were more satisfied with STWS than their conventional treatments. People associated with the program say there have been no negative side effects experienced by participants.
Joseph Sykes of Westerleigh, who responded to Ground Zero after the attacks, was forced to retire from the city Fire Department after suffering from dramatically reduced lung capacity, asthma and emphysema.
Sykes began taking eight prescribed medications to ease his lung conditions, and they helped, but he decided to try the Ayurvedic herbs after being introduced to STWS.
"I still cough, but not nearly as much as I used to," he said. "The herbs just seem to help me, give me more energy. I started getting more color in my skin."
STWS says that its herbs are tested in European and Indian laboratories for heavy metals before being sent to the United States.
"The herbs that are used in the manufacturing of the herbal remedies are standardized extracts and are analyzed for their purity and efficacy," wrote Smita Naram, wife of the renowned Ayurvedic practitioner Pankaj Naram, on STWS's Web site. Together, the couple helped found STWS and serve as medical advisors to the program. They advise participants to use the herbal remedies in tandem with any prescribed Western medical treatments.
When STWS volunteers first approached Capt. Frank Pellegrino's firehouse in Harlem, he thought they were offering some kind of scam, since it was all free. But he was willing to try the treatment to cure him of insomnia.
"I never slept, even as a kid," said Pellegrino, an Annadale resident who was involved in the 9/11 clean up and rescue efforts.
He began taking the supplement, but didn't change any other aspect of his life. "Two months later I started sleeping," Pellegrino said.
So far, STWS has paid for the herbs using grants and donations. It now is asking for money to fund full-time staff members for the program.
"At this point, we've all been volunteers," said Jose Mestre, executive director and co-founder of STWS. He said he wanted the program "to reach the tens of thousands of people who could benefit."
"Basically what they do is provide herbal supplements for workers who were exposed to debris at Ground Zero," Ms. Zak said. "The program was developed by a very respected doctor of Eastern medicine."

FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN
But Dr. Kim, who is a licensed acupuncturist in addition to a Western-style doctor, said that Ayurveda's lack of regulation makes it an unknown and potentially a danger.
"This is a very little known type of alternative medicine," he said. Without more national oversight of herbal-pill production, Dr. Kim said, "The risks are still real."
However, some of those workers exposed have nothing to lose.
Last Thursday, actor Tom Cruise appeared at a private fundraiser for the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Project, a program he co-founded five years ago.
The Scientology-based program offers free treatment to emergency workers who suffer breathing difficulties and other health problems related to 9/11.
"Nearly six years later, many are still paying a price for their heroic service at the World Trade Center. This is a profound injustice," Cruise said in a statement to The Associated Press before the dinner. "This project has demonstrated that recovery is not only possible, but an incontrovertible fact."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg denounced official proclamations honoring Cruise and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard that were drafted by City Councilman Hiram Monserrate, according to a story in the New York Post. Bloomberg told the newspaper Scientology is "not science, and we should only fund those programs that reputable scientists believe will stand the light of day."

Lisa Schneider covers health news for the Advance. She may be reached at schneider@siadvance.com.