Twenty years on from the terrible event itself, weight loss may reduce the risk of lung disease among 9/11 first responders, a new study suggests.
"Our findings should reassure World Trade Center first responders that there are steps they can take to protect their lungs even decades after exposure," said co-lead author Dr. Sophia Kwon. She's a fellow in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep at NYU Langone Health in New York City, and spoke in an NYU news release.
Health experts have long feared that firefighters' exposure to dangerous levels of fine particles from fire, smoke and toxic chemicals from the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11, 2001 would lead to lung disease.
Researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine analyzed two decades of data from more than 5,700 firefighters who responded on 9/11. Of those, 1,475 developed lung disease.
A cluster of five factors predicted lung disease in the firefighters: excess body fat, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and elevated blood levels of sugar and cholesterol.
All are part of what's known as metabolic syndrome, a group of health issues that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Even 20 years after their exposure at Ground Zero, changing at least one of these factors can significantly lower the firefighters' risk of developing lung disease within five years, the study found.
For example, a male firefighter of average height who lost 7 pounds could lower his risk for lung injury by 20%.
Experts already understood that first responders who developed metabolic syndrome shortly after 9/11 were more likely to have asthma. But lung injury risks for those who developed metabolic syndrome later on were unclear until now.
The findings were published Sept. 2 in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
"The lessons from our investigation can be applied not only to firefighters but to the millions of city dwellers exposed to air pollution on a daily basis," said senior author Dr. Anna Nolan, a professor of medicine and environmental health at NYU Langone.
"They should be aware that while their environment poses real health risks, they may still minimize their risk of lung disease even if they cannot change their exposure," she said in the release.