A recent study of first-response and recovery workers in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York reported that the clouds of dust and debris, much of which contained asbestos, has caused severe lung damage and reduced basic lung functions. The Office of Medical Affairs for the New York City Fire Department authorized the study, which examined over ten thousand firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and cleanup crews who worked at the World Trade Center site.
The report is one of the first attempts to quantify the full extent of the damage that first-responders suffered from in the two weeks following 9/11. As part of their initial applications and continued certifications for their jobs, firefighters and paramedics were required to take basic lung function tests annually. After 9/11, the workers were retested to learn whether the effects of the dust clouds significantly affected regular breathing, lung capacity and stamina.
The results of the study, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, found that exposure to asbestos-laced dust caused “abnormal lung function” within a “substantial proportion” of the workers who were retested. The study tracks the results of lung function tests from March 2000 to September 2008. The study examined more than ninety percent of the workers who were on site in those two weeks and found that the average worker lost ten percent of his or her lung function
The study determined that almost five thousand workers had persistent respiratory ailments, such as sore throat, sinus drip, coughing or sneezing. Almost a thousand other members of fire crews or emergency response teams had to be relieved of duty due to “permanent respiratory disability” from bronchitis or asthma triggered by the dust and debris. In all, workers at the scene experienced ten to twelve years’ worth of loss in lung function over a single year.
In most of these cases, the responder has recovered either very little or none at all in the intervening years. Dr. David Prezant, the study’s author and chief researcher, said that the persistent nature of the reduction in lung capacity “demonstrates … a need for continued monitoring”. Dr. Prezant also serves as the chief medical officer for the Office of Medical Affairs and has examined many of the current and former firefighters who were on duty during and after 9/11.
The World Trade Center towers, as well as many of the surrounding buildings, were constructed during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In those decades, construction workers often handled asbestos-laced materials, such as pipe insulation and roofing tiles. When the towers came down, so did much of the asbestos bonded to the construction materials. Asbestos mixed in with the other dust and debris could also have devastating effects.
Over the last few decades, researchers have established a positive link between asbestos exposure and a number of lung diseases and respiratory disorders. The most serious consequence of asbestos exposure is mesothelioma, a cancer that targets the soft tissue surrounding the lungs. Mesothelioma patients often do not display symptoms of the disease until several years after the initial exposure period. However, when symptoms do appear, the disease spreads quickly throughout the body.
Source: NYTimes, WebMD