The rescue workers' lung function was measured using spirometry, which gauges the rate and volume of air moving in and out of the lungs during breathing. Specifically, researchers measured forced expiratory volume, or how many liters of air workers could blow out in one second.
Firefighters and EMS workers have pulmonary function tests done every 12 to 18 months as part of their regular physicals, data that enabled the study authors to compare "before" and "after" 9/11 results.
Typically, forced expiratory volume declines gradually with age, but not nearly as severely as in the rescue workers, the study found.
In the case of the firefighters, their scores dropped an average of 371 milliliters in the first six months, or 12 times the expected decline. For EMS workers, the drop was 272 milliliters, or 10 times what would be expected, according to the study.
Low scores on the lung function tests can mean obstruction of the airways or inflammation in the lungs.
"These are healthy people who, despite their high state of fitness, have this very striking, very dramatic loss of pulmonary function after 9/11," said Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. "The good news here is that the decline in function looks like it was a one-time thing. They took this one large hit and have leveled off since then. The bad news is it's not getting any better. It looks like this is a permanent change."
The study included first responders who reported to Ground Zero between Sept. 11 and Sept. 24, 2001. Those who were there the day of the attacks, when the toxic cloud was most intense, had greater respiratory declines than those who went to the scene on subsequent days, Prezant said.
While a greater percentage of EMS workers had abnormal function, that's because EMS workers started out, on average, less fit than the firefighters and had lower sc
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