When the World Trade Center towers collapsed on September 11, 2001, people who rushed to the scene in rescue efforts were probably not thinking about their long-term health risks. But now, nearly 13 years later, research suggests first responders at Ground Zero exposed to inhaled particulates have increased risks of obstructed sleep apnea and post-traumatic stress order.
Cardiologist Dr. Mary Ann McLaughlin, who presented two separate studies at the American Heart Association's 2014 Scientific Sessions in San Francisco, CA, says both of these conditions could impact cardiovascular health.
She is a principal investigator for the WTC-CHEST Program at Mount Sinai, which examines the relationship between pulmonary and cardiac function abnormalities, other markers of chronic cardiopulmonary disease, kidney dysfunction and the pathophysiologic effects of inhaled particulate matter exposure on 9/11.
Rescue workers at Ground Zero were exposed to a dust cloud with high levels of cement dust, smoke, glass fibers and heavy metals.
Previously, the WTC-CHEST Program has linked exposure to this dust cloud to lung, heart and kidney disease abnormalities. But in this latest study, the researchers found more evidence of other heart risk factors.
"Our study shows high exposure to the massive dust cloud of air pollution at Ground Zero has increased the risk among first responders of both obstructive sleep apnea and PTSD," explains Dr. McLaughlin. "As a result, this puts our 9/11 first responders at higher risk of developing heart disease."
Certain rescuers exhibit inflammation linked to cardiovascular risk
To arrive at their findings, the research team studied over 800 participants from the WTC-CHEST Program between January 2011 and September 2013.
These participants had varying exposure to particulate matter during the rescue operations, ranging from very high down to low. The researchers took into account each individual's time of arrival on the scene, proximity, duration and level of exposure at Ground Zero.
In the group of responders, Dr. McLaughlin says there was "strong evidence" showing a significantly elevated risk of sleep apnea.
She explains that high exposure to the dust cloud from the World Trade Center attacks "caused upper airway inflammation and is a significant contributing factor to the pathogenesis of obstructive sleep apnea."
Additionally, first responders who had very high or high exposure to air particulates were more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Another finding showed that rescuers with PTSD also had elevated biomarkers for increased cardiovascular disease, including high sensitivity C-reactive protein, a key biomarker of inflammation linked to increased cardiovascular risk.
Dr. McLaughlin says their findings have prompted them to closely monitor first responders in the WTC-CHEST Program for warning signs of heart disease.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health helped fund the research studies.
In 2013, another study reported by Medical News Today suggested that the risk of cancer is 15% higher in rescuers exposed to Ground Zero, compared with the unexposed general population.