Increased Risk of Future Heart and Lung Disease in 9/11 Survivors

Are 9/11 Survivors at Heightened Long-Term Risk of Heart and Lung Disease?

All of us were traumatized by the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre, but the degrees of trauma varied greatly. While pretty much everyone, particularly those in the New York City area, was shocked, anguished, and distraught, obviously those who lost loved ones, or whose loved ones were injured in the event, experienced major alterations in their lives in ways the rest of us can only imagine. Beyond the thousands immediately lost on the planes and in the Twin Towers themselves, a great many people were exposed to toxic dust particles that clouded part of the city for months after the attack.

Who was most affected by the toxic plume?

Not only victims of the actual attack who breathed in the toxic particles at the site, but all the first responders who rushed to help — police, firefighters, EMTs, volunteers and good Samaritans — were filling their bodies with damaging particles that might sicken them later in their lives. While respiratory masks were offered and even required during the clean-up, many refused to wear them, even Mayor Giuliani. Although residents and office workers in the area also suffered ill effects, the work crews at the site, many of whom went to the location day after day for long periods of time, had the greatest exposure and are believed to have suffered the greatest harm.

The Effects of Long-Term Exposure to Toxic Dust and Ash

Individuals who breathed in harmful particles on the day of the tragic event, or during the extended period when toxic particles lingered in the air, may be at increased long-term risk of asthma, other respiratory diseases, and heart attacks. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, there was controversy surrounding the level of long-term risk, with some public officials declaring that the air throughout the area was safe to breathe. Now, 16 years later, studies are beginning to show actual research data verifying what many suspected all along.

The Results of the Research Studies

Though further research will provide more conclusive statistical results, one recent study, published in the open access journal Injury Epidemiology confirmed that those who were exposed to the dust cloud on September 11, 2001 are at increased long-term risk of lung and heart problems. Another study, undertaken by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, investigated the correlation between physical injury or acute exposure to the toxic dust and chronic disease up to 10 to 12 years later (2010 to 2012). Dr. Robert Brackbill, an author of this study reported that: “Our findings indicate that intense exposure on a single day — the first day of the disaster — contributes substantially to the risk of developing chronic conditions. Continued monitoring of people who were present in the vicinity of the World Trade Center on 11th September by medical providers is warranted for the foreseeable future.”

One disturbing conclusion of the researchers was that the more injuries individuals had suffered at the time (e.g. a combination of head injuries, fractures, or sprains) the greater their risk of angina or heart attack. Rescue workers and others with direct exposure to dust were found to be at increased risk of heart and lung conditions, particularly if they were smokers. No increased risk of developing diabetes was discovered.

By the Numbers

The total number of participants in the latter study — 8,701 — included 41 percent who had undergone intense exposure to the dust cloud. Ten percent had a single injury; 2 percent had two types of injuries and 1 percent had three or more. Among 7503 area workers, 249 rescue workers, 131 residents and 818 passersby, the researchers discovered 92 cases of heart disease, 308 cases of asthma and 297 cases of lung cases of lung disease without tumors, known medically as non-neoplastic lung disease.

As time goes by, more and more research studies are finding and reporting statistical correlations between 9/11 exposure to toxic dust in New York City and long-term development of serious and/or fatal disease conditions.

Melissa Thompson
Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn't know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.