Study reveals persistent, significant reduction in lung function for 9/11 responders, workers

A study published today in The New England Journal of Medicine reveals that Fire Department of New York (FDNY) firefighters and emergency medical services (EMS) workers who responded to the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center have suffered significant, persistent declines in lung functions. According to the report, exposure to World Trade Center dust created when the towers collapsed led to “large declines” in lung functions for FDNY rescue workers during the first year, and that “the declines were persistent, without recovery over the next 6 years, leaving a substantial proportion of workers with abnormal lung function.”

The study included 12,781 workers who were present at the WTC site between Sept. 11, 2001 and Sept. 24, 2001, which is 91.6 percent of the workers that were present. The report notes that the event exposed the workers – as well as those living and working in the surrounding area – to a dense cloud of pulverized building materials and chemical byproducts, including pulverized glass and cement, insulation fibers including asbestos, and toxic chemicals.

According to a report in The New York Times that summarizes the study findings, this is the first study to document long-term harm in a large group of firefighters and emergency medical workers who worked at Ground Zero. All of the subjects of the study had had previous lung function tests, providing a baseline for the study.

The study was authored by Dr. David J. Prezant, chief medical officer in the Office of Medical Affairs at the New York City Fire Department. The study was approved by the institutional review board at Montefiore Medical Center.

Results of the study revealed that firefighters, who had heavier exposure to dust by the nature of their work had greater first-year declines than EMS personnel, especially for firefighters who were present in the morning on 9/11, when the dust cloud was most intense after the buildings fell. However, researchers noted they were surprised to see “little or no recovery of average lung function during the 6-year follow-up period.” In fact, they noted continued decline in lung function among the study groups.

Normally, the study notes, “smoke inhalation during firefighting causes relatively mild and reversible respiratory impairment.” Additionally, according to the report, long-term effects of firefighting on pulmonary function also are normally mild.

The average loss of lung function for 9/11 rescue workers is about 10 percent. Most of the loss occurred within the first year after 9/11 exposure, with little or no subsequent recovery.

Thousands of workers injured at Ground Zero have been fighting for compensation from the City of New York. Last month about 10,000 plaintiffs reached a settlement agreement totaling $657.5 million, but a judge rejected the settlement shortly afterward, saying it did not provide enough compensation for the plaintiffs. The matter is now back in negotiations, and a new hearing is set for Monday, according to the Times.

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