Firefighters make their way through the rubble of the World Trade Center towers in New York in Sept. 2001.
Firefighters make their way through the rubble of the World Trade Center towers in New York in Sept. 2001. Shawn Baldwin/AP
With the passage of time since the attacks on the World Trade Center almost nine years ago, the health toll on workers who rushed to the scene is becoming clearer.
Firefighters and rescue workers exposed to the dust at the scene in the first weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks suffered significant, permanent damage to their lungs, with little or no improvement even years afterward.
Researchers at Albert Einstein Medical School, NYU and the New York Fire Department found that seven years after the attack, 1 in 8 exposed firefighters had below-normal lung function. Two percent had severe breathing problems.
The problems were worse for EMS workers. Twenty-three percent had below-normal lung capacity and nearly eight percent had severe lung problems. The results appear in this week's New England Journal of Medicine.
Overall, the moment when the workers first arrived on the scene didn't affect the extent of the lung damage very much, a fact that suggests the amount of dust the people breathed in at the start was the biggest factor in determining the injury to the lungs, the researchers said.
To be sure, people's breathing capacity declines as they grow older. But the average drops in the rescue workers a year after Sept. 11 were the equivalent of 10 to 12 years of aging, the New York Times noted.
Researchers monitored the breathing capacity of nearly 13,000 fire department personnel exposed to dust at Ground Zero immediately after the attacks and during rescue-and-recovery operations.
In March, thousands of World Trade Center rescue and cleanup workers reached a settlement with New York officials to compensate them for their health problems. Payments could total $658 million. But a federal judge rejected the settlement, saying too much of the money would go to lawyers — as much as 40 percent in some cases — instead of the workers.