Children exposed to toxic dust after 9/11 show signs of heart disease

Children exposed to toxic dust after the attack on New York's World Trade Centers in 2001 are showing early signs of cardiovascular risks, a study suggests.

Lead researcher Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, worked with a team of NYU Langone Health physicians to test a total of 308 children who were either living or studying in Lower Manhattan at the time of the terrorist attacks. All patients were born between Sept. 11, 1993, and Sept. 10, 2001.

According to the study, generous amounts of toxic chemicals, including perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), were released when electronics, cookware, carpet and furniture burned in the collapses. In the months following 9/11, air in the surrounding area was thick with PFASs, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), heavy metals and particulate matter.

Trasande and his team tested 123 individuals—now mostly young adults—who were enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Registry (WTCHR) following the disaster and found that group to have higher levels of serum PFASs than the matched control group, a conglomerate of 185 individuals who didn’t qualify for the WTCHR after 9/11 due to their location the morning of the attacks.

Trasande’s research is compliant with previous studies that have suggested PFASs are long-acting substances with half lives of three to eight or more years, persisting in the environment and human bodies. The full extent of the impact of World Trade Center-specific PFASs on their surrounding environment are unknown at this time, according to the study, but evidence has suggested PFASs can interfere with biological processes important to a healthy body including carbohydrate metabolism, lipid transport and metabolism, cholesterol synthesis, cell communication, oxidative stress and more.

Within PFASs, high levels of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) in children between the ages of 6 and 9 have been linked to metabolic syndrome and increased risk of heart disease later in life.

Trasande’s team tested all 308 study patients’ serum samples for exposure to PFASs through measuring arterial wall stiffness, body mass index, insulin resistance, fasting total cholesterol, HDL, LDL and triglycerides, according to the study. Results were clear: patients with higher serum PFASs had higher lipid levels and more concentrated PFOS and PFOA levels, which translated to overall higher cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Similar chemicals were associated with decreased insulin resistance and increased brachial artery distensibility.

Though Trasande said in a press release his study is the first of its kind of explore the extent of the relationship between 9/11 “dust” and risk of future cardiovascular disease in children exposed to the toxic chemicals, he said there was already evidence that exposed children had higher levels of PFASs. What this newer study concluded, he said, was that PFASs correlated with higher lipid levels—both cholesterol and triglycerides—in the young adults exposed to the toxins 16 years ago. Abnormally high fat levels like these can be an indicator of early atherosclerosis and heart disease.

Trasande said in the release these results are important steps in taking preventative measures against cardiovascular disease in patients affected by PFASs.

“Since 9/11, we have focused a lot of attention on the psychological and mental fallout from witnessing the tragedy, but only now are the potential physical consequences of being within the disaster zone itself becoming clear,” he said. “Our study emphasizes the importance of monitoring the health consequences from 9/11 in children exposed to the dust, and offers hope that early intervention can alleviate some of the dangers to health posed by the disaster.”