Researchers investigate link between WTC dust and heart disease, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's

New York and Ohio researchers are using dust collected within 72 hours of the collapse of the twin towers in their tests


Megan Henry
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nineteen years later, the dust still hasn't settled on the full impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on first responders at the World Trade Center.

That's why a researcher at Ohio State University's College of Nursing is studying the impact of the dust from the World Trade Center's collapse on first responders to see if there is a link to heart disease, early onset Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

In this Jan. 8, 2002 file photo, a rescue worker wearing a dust mask peers through a cloud of dust created by an excavator at the World Trade Center site in New York. Researchers from New York and Ohio are studying a possible link between World Trade Center dust and heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease in 9/11 responders. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
In this Jan. 8, 2002 file photo, a rescue worker wearing a dust mask peers through a cloud of dust created by an excavator at the World Trade Center site in New York. Researchers from New York and Ohio are studying a possible link between World Trade Center dust and heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease in 9/11 responders. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Loren Wold, assistant dean for biological health research at the College of Nursing, is working with Dr. Mitchell Cohen at New York University on the research. The U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention is funding the work under a one-year, $499,999 grant.

Cohen collected some of the World Trade Center dust in buckets within 72 hours of the collapse of the North and South towers, and the researchers are exposing rats to the dust to analyze the development of any organ-specific diseases over time.

"We're 19 years out, so now these first responders who were in their 20-30s are developing early onset neurodegenerative disease, in particular Alzheimer's-like disease, and so our interest also is in looking at this in the animal model in order to then design therapies to combat these diseases," Wold said.

About 2,750 people were killed in New York City alone during the 9/11 attacks, including more than 400 firefighters, EMS and police personnel.

Many of the first responders who survived and worked through the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history have been plagued with a slew of health problems, ranging from pulmonary, gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases to dementia and Parkinson's.

Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia that affects memory, thinking and behavior. It is considered to be "early onset" if it affects a person under 65, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

About 200,000 Americans under 65 have early onset Alzheimer's, and 5.6 million Americans have Alzheimer's, according to the association. There is no cure for Alzheimer's, and it is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S.

Parkinson's disease is a brain disorder leading to shaking, stiffness and challenges with walking, balance and coordination. More than 10 million people are living with Parkinson's worldwide.

The rats in Wold's study were exposed to the World Trade Center dust for two days, similar to how many of the first responders were exposed to the trade center dust for the first couple of days after the terrorist attack, Wold said.

Exposure of rats to the dust recently started in New York. The rats will be transferred to Ohio State once the exposure is done by early November, then they will be inspected for about a year, Wold said. One year for a rat is similar to about 30 years in a human, he said.

He hypothesizes that exposure to the dust from the World Trade Center will cause changes in the rats' hearts, lungs and brains over time, similar to changes that have been seen in the first responders.

Two studies from the Stony Brook World Trade Center Health and Wellness Program in Long Island were recently published showing World Trade Center first responders are at risk of developing dementia. The program treats and monitors about 12,000 World Trade Center first responders.

"A lot of times with this toxic type of exposure, the manifestation of that exposure only occurs later on in life," said Dr. Benjamin Luft, director of the program and co-author of the studies. "It takes 10 or 20 years before it manifests itself. This is how the body works and this is the amount of time that's necessary for things to cook up and present itself."

The results of World Trade Center first-responder research like Wold and Luft's can help doctors treat patients.

"This is an important area that people were not aware of before, so when patients come in and they start complaining of these type of issues, the doctor is now aware that this may be something of concern and will evaluate and assess these patients," Luft said.

The result of Wold's research also can help better aid people who have been exposed to environmental conditions.

"It allows us to look forward to other possible situations such as wildfires or other situations where people would be exposed to very extreme environmental conditions for a short period," Wold said.

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©2020 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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