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Heartburn/GERD Health Center

Heartburn, Reflux Seen in 9/11 Survivors

New Study Shows Lingering Health Effects of People at Ground Zero
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Sept. 7, 2011 -- Many people who were exposed to the dust cloud after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, may have developed lasting heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, and other symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

The new findings appear in the American Journal of Gastroenterology. They bolster the results of another recent study that looked at the lingering health effects, including heartburn and acid reflux, seen among rescue and recovery workers at Ground Zero.

“This study provides more evidence to support that there could be a relationship between 9/11 exposure and GERD symptoms,” says researcher Jiehui Li, MBBS. She is with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Long Island City, N.Y.

The study looked at symptoms of GERD, not GERD itself.

GERD symptoms may include:

  • Heartburn
  • Acid reflux
  • Indigestion
  • Stomach discomfort (dyspepsia)
  • Cough
  • Chest pain

Researchers surveyed more than 37,000 adults who lived or worked near Ground Zero who did not report any GERD symptoms prior to 9/11. Of these, 20% had some new GERD symptoms after 9/11. For 13%, these symptoms persisted for at least five to six years, the study showed.

The findings held even among people who did not have asthma or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both of these conditions have been found to coexist with GERD.

The researchers speculate that alkaline cement -- one of the components seen in the dust cloud that enveloped lower Manhattan after the terror attacks - may have contributed to causing asthma and GERD.

GERD-Cancer-9/11 Question?

Persistent GERD is a risk factor for a precancerous condition known as Barrett’s esophagus. This condition is marked by abnormal changes in the cells that line the esophagus.

It’s too early to say whether people who developed GERD symptoms from exposure to the dust at Ground Zero are at a higher risk for developing esophageal cancer.

“This is unknown territory because we haven’t experienced exposures like this before,” says researcher Steven D. Stellman, PhD, MPH. He is also with the NYC Department of Health.

“As time goes on and as we continue to survey these individuals, we will discover if these symptoms persist,” he says.

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