Health Woes Persist for 9/11 Rescue Workers

Lung Problems Linger for Years for Workers at Ground Zero, Study Finds

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on April 07, 2010
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April 7, 2010 -- Lung problems continue to plague rescue workers who were at the scene of the collapsed World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

That’s according to a new study appearing today in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study, which examined the effect of occupational exposures on lung function, found that a significant number of New York City Fire Department workers at the World Trade Center site between Sept. 11, 2001, and Sept. 24, 2001, continued to suffer from reduced lung function years later.

“The exposure at Ground Zero was so unique that no one could have predicted the impact on lung function,” says David Prezant, MD, one of the study’s authors and a professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York City.

“We have demonstrated dramatic decline in lung function, mostly in the first six months after 9/11, and these declines persisted with little or no meaningful recovery of lung function among FDNY (Fire Department of New York City) rescue workers ... over the next six-and-a-half years,” he says. Prezant also serves as the chief medical officer of the Fire Department of New York City, Office of Medical Affairs, which collaborated with Einstein and Montefiore Medical Center on the study.

For the investigation, researchers evaluated the lung function of 12,781 New York City rescue workers, who represented nearly 92% of the 13,954 city firefighters and emergency medical service workers who were on the scene after the terrorist attacks. From March 12, 2000, to Sept.11, 2008, researchers used spirometry, a common pulmonary function test that measures the amount of air exhaled in a single breath, to ascertain participants’ lung function every 12-18 months. The mean follow-up time was 6.1 years for firefighters and 6.4 years for emergency-medical-service workers.

For all participants, the mean forced expiratory volume decreased significantly in the year following the terrorist attacks, but more so for firefighters who had never smoked than for emergency service workers who had never smoked.

Participants recovered little to no lung function in the following six years, the researchers say.

The study served as a follow-up to a previous 2006 study, published in American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine that found that New York City rescue workers lost substantial lung function a year after the terrorist attacks, more than 12 times the decline in function one would expect with normal aging.

“Previous studies have indicated that the effects of firefighting on lung function are mild and reversible,” the current study’s lead author, Thomas Aldrich, a professor of medicine at Einstein, says in a written statement. “The difference seems to be that the workers in our study population experienced repeated daily exposures to much higher concentrations of airborne particulates (solid particles suspended in the air) and gaseous chemicals.”

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