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RTI Stories

RTI and the Aftermath of 9/11

Assessing the psychological damage of terrorism--and helping to prevent future attacks

The terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001--and the subsequent military strikes against Afghanistan and Iraq--had a profound impact on RTI. Just two months after 9/11, the Institute was contracted to assemble empirical data about the event's aftermath, in order to inform public health policy. Researchers measured the level of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in New York City, Washington, and the rest of the country; the findings indicated that more than half a million people in New York alone exhibited symptoms of PTSD and were 2.9 times more likely to have this disorder than those living in other areas.

RTI also collaborated with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) to create a registry of individuals exposed to smoke, dust, and debris caused by the collapse and clean-up of the twin towers. Funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the project, among other things, identified people exposed to toxic substances and assessed the occurrence of physical injuries and mental health effects among 9/11 survivors.

More than 71,000 people were interviewed in the course of this project, including rescue, recovery, and cleanup workers; local residents; students and staff at schools and day-care facilities; and employees in the damaged or destroyed buildings. RTI developed a database of potential registrants, assigning them to groups based on their likely level of exposure; Institute staff also helped to conduct a public outreach and media campaign; developed a Web-based questionnaire for use in telephone and in-person surveys; conducted interviews in English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin; and developed and deployed a system for managing, processing, and delivering the data to the New York City health department.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also funded a post-9/11 project to evaluate the capacity of state public-health laboratories to respond to chemical terrorism. RTI researchers conducted a literature review, designed and administered a five-state Web survey, and then coordinated a nationwide consensus-building workshop that brought together representatives of the public health laboratories, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Defense, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to develop policy recommendations for strengthening laboratories’ ability to respond to chemical attacks.