Study: Blood test could predict 9/11 lung damage

Thousands of people were exposed to toxic clouds of dust after the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11, and while many developed lung damage, some did not. A new study of firefighters at Ground Zero found chemical markers in their blood that predicted which ones later fell ill.
Associated Press / Greg Semendinger


Thirty firefighters exposed to World Trade Center toxins have helped researchers at New York University’s medical school to identify a specific set of substances in their blood that helped to predict which 9/11 survivors would develop lung disease.

The researchers analyzed levels of hundreds of different metabolites — molecules the body makes as it turns food into energy — in  blood samples taken from the firefighters within seven months of the disaster.

Although all 30 firefighters had similar exposure to the toxins at Ground Zero, 15 firefighters with higher levels of more than two dozen specific kinds of fats, amino acids and stress hormones suffered from poor lung function by 2015 — compared to their 15 counterparts without lung damage.

The senior author of the paper said the study is a bridge for the next phase of her team’s research, which will focus on identifying specific foods associated with those metabolites which might have contributed to the firefighters’ lung disease, in the hope of coming up with dietary recommendations to slow, halt, or even reverse the damage.

“We are planning on taking a subset of individuals that lost lung function and trying to identify whether a certain type of diet is useful to them,” said Anna Nolan, a professor in NYU’s Department of Medicine and Department of Environmental Medicine.

The right diet could “improve their quality of life and lung function,” she said.

Previous research showed that nearly one-in-10 firefighters exposed to WTC dust have signs of lung injuries, which is attributable to heavy metals, asbestos, micro-particles of fibrous glass and other toxic chemicals in the debris, according to Nolan.

Certain risk factors, such as poor diet, could be associated with the set of predictive metabolites that Nolan and her team found. If a better diet is associated with rebalancing metabolites, lung disease in people affected by WTC toxins could be stalled or even reversed.

Nolan and her team plan to study the connections between a healthier diet — specifically a low-calorie Mediterranean diet — and lung health, but she emphasized that using a healthy diet to improve lung function has not yet been demonstrated in clinical studies.

The findings of her latest research, published last month in the scientific journal BMJ Open Respiratory Research, could one day lead to a test to predict early the eventual development of lung damage in people who are exposed to all sorts toxins. The earlier lung damage is found, the more effective treatment can be, she added.

But to create such a test, further studies will have to look at a much larger, more diverse group, in order to evaluate a range of other possible predictors of lung damage, Nolan said.

The 30 firefighters in the recent study were a “handpicked population,” she explained, in that they all had never smoked, were all men, and had all arrived at Ground Zero by September 13, 2001. Future research with a larger sample that better reflects the broader population “would have to be more generalizable,” said Nolan. “We would have to test our hypothesis in those populations too,” she added.

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