“Not Getting Better: A new study finds serious lung problems among thousands of 9/11 responders,” headlined a worrisome Newsweek story this week.
But it’s a great example of researchers and media cooperating to produce ominous, rather than accurate, headlines.
The new study reported that in the year following the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center collapse, rescue workers experienced, on average, a 9 percent decrease in lung function as measured by forced expiratory volume (FEV1).
Based on measurements taken prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, the average FEV1 for rescue workers was already 6.8 percent below the lower limit of normal. One year after the attacks, the average FEV1 was 15.3 percent below the lower limit of normal. This short-term decline in lung function is not unexpected.
Rescue workers were exposed to relatively high levels of airborne pollutants in the immediate aftermath of, and the weeks following, the collapse. They also did not have appropriate respiratory protection equipment initially and even when they had the equipment, it was often not used properly.
But while there’s no quibble with the study results, they in no way support the conclusion reflected in Newsweek’s “Not Getting Better” headline.
The most recent rescue worker FEV1 measurements analyzed in the study were obtained prior to Sept. 11, 2002 – about four years ago. Ninety percent of the workers in the study had their FEV1 measurements within just 5 months of the WTC collapse – so the vast majority of rescue workers’ FEV1 measurements are more than four years old and reflect only a very brief recovery period of a few months.
Moreover, study leader Dr. Gisela Banauch reported in an earlier study that 15 percent of the rescue workers classified themselves as current smokers and 29 percent reported smoking more after 9/11; 23 percent of ex-smokers reported smoking again.
Although Banauch claims to have statistically adjusted her results for rescue worker smoking, it’s not clear that the lung effects of the increased smoking so easily vanish with a wave of her statistical wand.
So how does all this stale data and questionable analysis translate into the headline, “Not Getting Better”? It doesn’t -- not unless the researchers have much more recent and corroborative data to offer.
There is more recent data, but I wonder whether it will see the light of day anytime soon because there is a distinct possibility that it doesn’t support the premature conclusion that the rescue workers, on average, were significantly and permanently harmed.
Newsweek asked Banauch, “Have you analyzed data from the same group from 9/11/02 through the present?”
Banauch claimed, “I have not seen it yet, but there is more data now on the nearly five years following 9/11. We will follow up.”
Banauch then went on to belittle the significance of the supposedly unseen more recent data, claiming that “you can get this ‘healthy worker effect,’ where the healthiest people are those who show up for repeat exams while those who are sicker or have died are not included.”
This excuse doesn't justify ignoring newer data in favor of hyping stale data.
As far as rescue workers dying, Banauch told Newsweek, “Death has not been a big factor yet... I think we’ll see deaths related to this in the future. Maybe not five or 10 years, but in 20 years.”
This is obviously just guesswork on Banauch’s part. It’s the sort of line that anti-chemical hysterics have used in the past as “rationale” for worrying about chemical exposures causing cancer.
“We haven’t seen any problems yet, but we don’t know what will happen in the future,” is how they’d often foment worry about exposures to chemicals.
Regarding sick workers, Banauch told Newsweek, “So the sickest ones have retired or may retire and move away because it is too expensive to stay [in New York City].”
But while sick workers may have retired or moved away, they’re most likely still under some sort of medical care – especially since such care is most likely part of their retirement or disability packages. Such medical care would likely include FEV1 measurements if they have respiratory issues.
In any event, it wouldn’t be too difficult for interested researchers to track down the sick workers – their disability and retirement checks must get mailed somewhere – and ask to review their medical records or to measure their FEV1s. It’s a simple non-invasive test with a piece of handheld equipment. That’s what a truly motivated scientist would do for important follow-up data.
Banauch concludes her study with a call for more research -- which translates to more taxpayer funding of her work. More research may indeed be warranted -- but we won’t know until we see an analysis that includes the most recent, rather than the most stale, rescue worker health data.