We've known for years that the toxic dust inhaled by first responders to the September 11th attacks could lead to lung, heart and kidney problems, but new research out from Mount Sinai Hospital's World Trade Center Health Program finds that those with the highest exposures are more likely to suffer from sleep apnea.
"The airway narrows during sleep, and patients snore. They hold their breath, and importantly, they don't get enough oxygen when they're sleeping," says Dr. MaryAnn McLaughlin, director of the Mt. Sinai Medical Center Cardiac Health Program. "So this can cause an inflammation in the body and lead to high blood pressure, increased risks of heart attack and sudden death."
Post-traumatic stress disorder is also a risk factor for heart disease. McLaughlin and her team found that those with high dust cloud exposure were also 20 percent more likely to have the disorder.
"It’s also associated with depression, as well," McLaughlin says.
The findings are the result of a two-year study, surveying 800 participants.
McLaughlin says they're trying to uncover what causes heart disease not only for those September 11th responders, but also for others placed in hazardous work conditions.
"We hope to see whether inhaling these particulates have an additive effect to worsen the risk for heart attack," she says.
If so, McLaughlin says they may be able to find better treatments for reducing the inflammation caused by inhaling particulates.
"So if we can figure out exactly what those chemicals and hormones are that were involved, and then target therapies, those types of therapies could be generalized to other diseases as well," she says.
The Mount Sinai researchers are still surveying a few hundred more participants toward that end.
"What's important is that we don't forget about the tragedy of 9/11," McLaughlin says. "The risks can happen after years."
She urges those that may have been exposed to continue to seek help and to consider enrolling in the Mount Sinai- or City Hospital-run World Trade Center health programs.