THURSDAY, Feb. 5, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Almost a quarter of a sample of people exposed to toxic dust after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack in New York City still suffer from diminished lung capacity, a new study finds.
The rate of problems is much higher than normal, about 2.5 times more than would be expected in people who smoke, said study co-author Dr. Jacqueline Moline, director of the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program Clinical Center.
"These tests confirm what we've seen clinically: People are sick, they're short of breath," Moline said. "They used to run miles a day, now they can barely run the length of a football field."
But it's not clear what all of this means for their health in the long term, the researchers said.
The study findings appear in the February issue of the journal Chest.
Experts estimate that about 40,000 people, including fire and rescue workers, were exposed to noxious pollution in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center.
Between 2004 and 2007, researchers gave breath tests to 3,160 9/11 workers and volunteers who had taken part in an earlier round of tests from 2002 to 2004.
About a quarter of those tested still have limited lung capacity and lung function, Moline said. "The most common finding we see is that people aren't able to take in as deep of a breath as you'd expect, and some can't push it out as much."
The normal rate of lung capacity problems for a similar group of people would be five percent for non-smokers and 10 percent for smokers, she noted.
"These are problems we're seeing five or six or seven years after the towers fell," Moline said. "Many of these folks are going to have long-term problems, and their lung function won't return to normal."
She said that researchers may never know what component of the toxic brew of 9/11 dust and smoke hurt the lungs of those who responded to the emergency.
Workers at the site reported cases of a signature "World Trade Center cough" and many said they suffered from such symptoms as itchy eyes and runny noses, even after the site cleanup ended in 2006.
The news is not all bad, however. Medication and other treatment could help those who were exposed, Moline said.
Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, said that researchers still need to figure out what comes next for those exposed to the pollution.
"We don't know what it means for future health so we must, as the authors suggest, continue to follow them," he said.
Research released in September by the New York City health department looked at a wide range of people exposed to the World Trade Center disaster, including nearby residents and commuters. Authors of that study estimated that more than 400,000 people were exposed to the disaster. An estimated 35,000 to 70,000 of them developed post-traumatic stress disorder, and 3,800 to 12,600 people developed asthma as a result.
Find out more about the health of people exposed to the 9/11 attack at the World Trade Center Health Registry.