By Wade Rawlins
New York Firefighters and rescue workers who inhaled the noxious cloud of dust, chemicals and asbestos debris at Ground Zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks still have significantly abnormal lung function years later, a new medical study says.
In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the New York University School of Medicine and the New York Fire Department said they had observed little or no recovery of lung function among firefighters in the nearly decade since they responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center.
The medical researchers compared before and after 9/11 lung function tests of more than 12,700 active and retired New York Fire Department firefighters and rescue personnel — more than 90 percent of those who responded. Their aim is to understand the longer term health effects of the massive exposure to dust and debris at the World Trade Center site based on repeated follow-up lung testing.
The massive exposure to dust at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and repeated exposure to lesser amounts over the subsequent recovery operations led to significant declines in respiratory function in the first year after 9/11 among both firefighters and EMS workers with no history of smoking, the researchers say.
Firefighters had the heaviest exposure to dust and experienced the largest decline in lung function in the first year after 9/11, researchers said. It was more than 12 times the average rate of loss of lung function adjusted for age. Surprisingly, the FDNY firefighters recovered little or none of lung function as shown by follow up tests in a six year period September 2008, the researchers said.
Of those tested, about 13 percent of firefighters and 22 percent of EMS workers who never smoked still had abnormal lung function seven years after 9/11, the study said. Before 9/11, few firefighters had abnormal lung function tests.
Typically, firefighters show no long lasting respiratory effects of smoke inhalation, the researchers said. In the absence of overwhelming exposure, smoke inhalation during firefighting usually causes mild and reversible respiratory impairment.
The researchers said they could not analyze the effect of the use of masks and respirators on lung function, because the use of such safety equipment was minimal during the first weeks after 9/11
Declines in respiratory function also occurred and persisted among non-FDNY rescue workers and volunteers at Ground Zero. other volunteers and workers. But health records were not available among this group to compare lung function before 9/11 to afterward.
Some dust from the World Trade Center collapse contained asbestos and other contaminants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But the agency said at the time that the majority of air and dust sample monitored at the site did not indicate levels of public concern. Inhaling airborne asbestos is closely associated with respiratory disease including lung cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung. Mesothelioma has a long latency period and typically takes 20 to 40 years after exposure for symptoms to appear.