Lung Function at Ground Zero

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A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that firefighters and EMT workers who lost lung function as a result of dust at Ground Zero did not fully recover it over the next six years. We asked ACSH Trustee and lung specialist Dr. Ken Prager of the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons to explain the nuances of the report.

ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross summarizes, Dr. Prager basically said that, while it is obviously regrettable that many firemen exposed to 9/11 lost some lung function, it should be pointed that this drop is unlikely to have an impact on longevity. The fact that they continued to drop at 25cc annually over the next six years -- which is the average drop in FEV1 [an approximate, simple measure of breathing function] annually for a healthy population -- seems to show that these firemen will not suffer an accelerated drop in pulmonary function.

In other words, after suffering from the initial exposure which seemed to cause the large initial drop, they seem to be back on the curve of normal physiologic deterioration over time. This finding is not surprising given the enormous quantity of dust generated by the collapse of the towers. This was clearly an unprecedented event, so this study is important.

Dr. Prager added that this study says nothing about the other maladies purportedly related to Ground Zero exposure. ACSH s Jeff Stier, who has recently written (twice) about 9/11 health claims for the New York Post, points out, Only a small percentage of firefighters studied had a measurable effect, and among those, it is unlikely that this will affect their longevity or quality of life. So this study doesn t prove that the vast majority of 9/11 workers did suffer lung disease. Rather, it shows how few were actually harmed. Contrast this with the number of plaintiffs, and you are left scratching your head wondering where they came up with the illnesses.

UPDATE (4/12/2010):

In our April 8th Dispatch, coverage of a New England Journal of Medicine study about lung function among workers at Ground Zero, Jeff Stier said, Only a small percentage of firefighters studied had a measurable effect ...

In fact, most if not all of those studied did have a measurable effect; however, as pulmonary expert and ACSH Trustee Dr. Kenneth Prager advised us, only a small percentage of those firemen studied had a significant decline in lung function. We regret this error and thank Dr. Prager for pointing it out.