Study: 9/11 first responders can lower risk of lung injury from Ground Zero toxins

Even two decades later, weight loss and treating excess fat in the blood stream may reduce responders’ chance of developing lung disease


By Rachel Engel 

NEW YORK — A new study shows a link between weight loss and lung health in first responders exposed to fine particles from fire, smoke and other toxic chemicals on Sept. 11, 2001.  

Researchers at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine identified five factors that predict lung disease in 9/11 first responders:  

The study, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, found that adjusting even one of the five factors can “greatly lower firefighters’ risk of developing lung disease within 5 years,” even two decades after 9/11.
The study, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, found that adjusting even one of the five factors can “greatly lower firefighters’ risk of developing lung disease within 5 years,” even two decades after 9/11. (AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett)
  1. Increased body fat 

  2. Insulin resistance 

  3. High blood pressure 

  4. High levels of sugar in the blood 

  5. High levels of cholesterol in the blood 

The study, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, found that adjusting even one of the five factors can “greatly lower firefighters’ risk of developing lung disease within 5 years,” even two decades after 9/11. 

Researchers utilized 20 years of data from more than 5,700 firefighters who were active on 9/11, and of which 1,475 later developed lung disease. The data included firefighters’ smoking history and whether they had responded to the World Trade Center in the initial hours after the terrorist attack when “pollutant exposure” was highest.  

“Our findings should reassure World Trade Center first responders that there are steps they can take to protect their lungs even decades after exposure,” study co-lead author Sophia Kwon, DO, MPH.  

In one trial, a group of 100 firefighters were placed on a calorie-restricted diet that consisted of “unrefined grains, olive oil, fruits and fish” for six months. Participants saw a reduction in BMI of nearly two points and had “fewer signs of lung disease” than they had at the beginning of the trial.  

According to researchers, a male firefighter who loses just 7 pounds could reduce his risk for lung injury by up to 20%.  

“These results offer firefighters a concrete way to lose weight and achieve the lung health benefits predicted by our risk model,” said study co-lead author George Crowley, BA, a predoctoral fellow at NYU Langone.  

“The lessons from our investigation can be applied not only to firefighters but to the millions of city dwellers exposed to air pollution on a daily basis,” said study senior author and pulmonologist Anna Nolan, MD. “They should be aware that while their environment poses real health risks, they may still minimize their risk of lung disease even if they cannot change their exposure.” 

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