Low Rate of Lung Function Decline in World Trade Center Responders: Study

Decreased lung function was more likely for officers with respiratory symptoms, those who were present when the towers collapsed, and those who worked long hours at the WTC site.

Ninety-five percent of officers in the New York Police Department (NYPD) Emergency Services Unit (ESU) who responded to the 2001 World Trade Center (WTC) disaster show no long-term decrease in lung function, reports a study in the June Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

Led by Eli J. Kleinman, M.D., supervising chief surgeon of the NYPD, the researchers analyzed lung function changes in 206 WTC responders from the ESU. All ESU officers are required to take an annual lung function tests, posing a unique opportunity to study possible changes in the years after exposure to the WTC site. Also, unlike firefighters responding to the WTC, the ESU officers didn’t have a history of repeated exposure to respiratory hazards.

Some lung function measures were lower at follow-up tests in 2002 and 2007. However, most of the ESU officers had no change in lung function, beyond the expected age-related declines.

The remaining five percent of the officers did have reductions consistent with mild lung dysfunction. Decreased lung function was more likely for officers with respiratory symptoms, those who were present when the towers collapsed, and those who worked long hours at the WTC site. Smokers had greater declines in lung function, as did the small number of officers who didn’t wear respiratory protective devices while working at the WTC site.

Overall, the results provide “encouraging expectations” that most WTC responders won’t experience long-term declines in lung function. Of course, there’s continued concern about the small but significant proportion with persistent or worsening declines in lung function.

Kleinman and colleagues plan close follow-up in high-risk groups: smokers, officers with respiratory symptoms, and those highly exposed to the WTC site. The authors think their findings also have important implications for disaster planning and preparedness — emphasizing the need for effective personal protective gear and limited duty hours at sites where responders could be exposed to hazardous conditions.

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