Children Exposed to Toxic 9/11 Dust Show Signs of Heart Disease as Young Adults

Subjects with higher levels of the chemicals known to be in debris from the World Trade Center were found to have greater levels of artery-hardening fats in their blood.

Americans still contend year-to-year with the legacy of the 2001 terror attack that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York. According to a recent study, several hundred young adults who were exposed to toxic dust and debris on 9/11 as children are now showing early signs of risk for heart disease.

Researchers at NYU Langone Health examined the blood of 308 people who had either lived or studied in Lower Manhattan as children on the day of the attacks. Nearly half of the participants came into direct contact with dust and debris from ground zero.

The analysis, which was conducted by a team led by Dr. Leonardo Trasande, a health epidemiologist and associate professor at NYU School of Medicine, found that those with higher levels of the chemicals known to be in debris from the World Trade Center also had greater levels of artery-hardening fats in their blood.

Several studies have examined the mental health effects of witnessing the tragedy on 9/11 and studied the toxic impact on the health of first responders, but according to Trasande, this is the first study to look at the long-term cardiovascular health risks of children exposed to chemicals when the World Trade Center was attacked.

“Children are a vulnerable population that was unfortunately exposed to the debris and dust from ground zero on 9/11,” Dr. Trasande told Seeker. “There is still a big gap of research when it comes to the potential risks that may have an impact on their physical health.”

The study participants are part of the World Trade Center Health Registry (WTCHR), which is tracking both the physical and mental health effects of 2,900 children who lived or went to school in Lower Manhattan on 9/11.

In January, a Langone analysis of several WTCHR participants showed that those who were present near ground zero on 9/11 had higher levels of PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances) in their blood than the participants who were not in the city on that day.

“We found that higher serum levels of PFAS are associated with increased blood lipids,” Trasande said. “Blood lipids are an early marker of cardiovascular risk, and if ignored may lead to adverse outcomes later in life like coronary artery disease or stroke.”

Luckily, these risk factors “can be avoided if identified earlier on,” Trasande noted, explaining that they can be somewhat controlled with diet and exercise.

“Understanding these risks is essential for continuous monitoring and early interventions to prevent adverse cardio-metabolic outcomes in the future,” he said.

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The presence of PFAS in the air on the day of the attacks came from the many electronics and furniture that burned in the World Trade Center after terrorists flew airliners into the two towers. PFAS was once widely used in the US to make plastics more flexible but the government discontinued it after learning its many adverse health effects, including lower-than-normal birth weights and brain damage.

“Our study showed that there was an association with PFAS and increased blood lipid levels in children exposed to WTC debris and dust,” Trasande said. “During this unfortunate tragedy it was nearly impossible to avoid the chemicals that were being released into the environment, however, there were various chemical pollutants that were released that day. Further studies are clearly needed to identify which other pollutants or collection of pollutants may have affected physical health.”

Another study from the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that people exposed to dust on 9/11 also had raised blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP can cause inflammation and is linked to higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. It was discovered that people with high levels of CRP had a 12 percent greater risk of PTSD than people whose CRP was not elevated.

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Since the World Trade Center collapse 16 years ago, thousands of firefighters, emergency personnel, and other first responders have suffered illnesses related to 9/11. More than 5,400 people have been diagnosed with cancer caused by breathing in the toxic chemicals in the air during the hours and days after the attacks. On Monday’s anniversary, 32 FDNY firefighters, whose deaths were caused by 9/11-related illnesses, will be added to the list of the fallen.

Payouts by the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund have reached nearly $3 billion since it was reopened. The VCF was created in 2001 to support families of those injured and killed on 9/11 and paid out $7 billion before it was closed in 2004. Due to the abundance of illnesses related to the attacks, it reopened in 2011 to provide additional financial support for victims and their loved ones.