WTC rescuers' lungs degraded, study says

Liz Szabo
USA Today
Aug. 1, 2006 12:00 AM

Working amid the rubble of the World Trade Center may have aged the lungs of firefighters and rescue workers by an average of 12 years, a new study shows.

"It's pretty shocking," says John Balmes, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco who reviewed the new research, published today in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, but was not involved in writing it. "They got 12 years' worth of loss in one year."

Doctors have closely monitored the health of workers exposed to dust from the towers' collapse. advertisement

In the new study, doctors report the results of periodic lung function tests given to about 12,000 New York City Fire Department rescue workers between 1997 and 2002, says Gisela Banauch, an author of the paper.

Doctors gauged lung capacity by measuring how much patients could breathe out in one second, she says. This measure, called forced expiratory volume, or FEV, tends to decline with age.

Before the attacks of Sept. 11 workers' scores dropped by about 31 milliliters of lung volume a year, according to the study.

In the year after the attacks, however, rescuers lost an average of 372 milliliters - a decline that doctors would normally expect to see after 12 years of aging, says Banauch, an attending physician at New York's Montefiore Medical Center.

The authors say they don't know whether lung function will continue to deteriorate or whether rescuers' lungs will heal some of the damage.

Banauch says doctors will continue to analyze test results from firefighters to see whether their lung function changes over time.

If the trend isn't reversed, Banauch says, workers could be at increased risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, caused by a narrowing of the lung's airways that can make it hard to breathe.

Workers present during the Twin Towers' collapse lost the most lung capacity, the study shows. Workers who showed up later suffered less lung damage.

Firefighters also lost more lung function than emergency medical service workers, according to the study.

Balmes, who wrote an editorial accompanying Banauch's study, says this loss of lung function probably doesn't affect workers' normal activities.

But they may become more winded after exercise - a problem for people with jobs as physically strenuous as fighting fires, he says.

In his editorial, Balmes writes that some of the health problems "could have been prevented with early and well-trained use of simple respiratory protective equipment."

Many firefighters, police, construction workers and others who worked at Ground Zero now report medical problems, including the "WTC cough," according to the article.

Air pollution at Ground Zero included more than 400 chemicals, according to the study.

Banauch says the study has some limitations.

Researchers generally prefer to compare one group of patients to another while conducting medical studies.

In this case, though, the authors couldn't fairly compare the health of firefighters who worked at the World Trade Center with others who did not, Banauch says, because those who didn't report to Ground Zero tended to be older and sicker.

The study remains very powerful, Balmes says, because researchers were able to compare lung test results both before and after 2001.