A new study has found that many firefighters and emergency medical personnel who responded in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack on New York's World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, continue to suffer potentially permanent lung problems.  

Seven years after two hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers - triggering an inferno and structural failure that brought both skyscrapers down - many of the firefighters and medical personnel called to the smoke- and dust-filled scene were still experiencing lung ailments.

That's the finding of researchers at Albert Einstein University's Montefiore Medical Center in New York, based on their analysis of previous studies of the lung health of 9/11 first-responders.  David Prezant, a specialist in respiratory medicine and senior author of the Montefiore report, says all the first-responders surveyed in those earlier studies had been outfitted with protective respirators.

But the protective gear was inadequate, according to Prezant, who was himself among the first responders at what's come to be known as Ground Zero.

"The World Trade Center dust is a combination of the most dense, intense particulate matter [fire fighters and EMS personnel were] ever exposed to in an urban environment; plus the chemicals of combustion, not just those chemicals that are associated with a normal house fire, but in addition to that, combustion of the towers and the thousands and thousands of gallons of jet fuel that were present," Prezant noted.

Prezant says New York City's health department had baseline lung function measurements on file for every city firefighter prior to 9/11.  Researchers found in a 2006 study comparing lung function with the earlier levels that lung function was below normal in nearly 20 percent of firefighters and 22 percent of emergency medical workers who'd rushed to the twin towers' site.

In 2008, in a study of 11,700 first-responders, lung function remained compromised in 13 percent of firefighters and nearly a quarter of medical personnel who had responded to the 9/11 attack at Ground Zero.

To this day, Prezant says, the emergency workers continue to experience respiratory problems, notably asthma and chronic bronchitis.

"This is a persistent, real decline that requires long-term monitoring and aggressive treatment," said Prezant.

As many as three percent of the first-responders, according to Prezant, are permanently disabled by the toxic fallout of the World Trade Center disaster.

Prezant and firefighter groups contacted for this report declined to comment on their own health status citing their ongoing legal proceedings against the city of New York.

An article by Prezant and colleagues on the lingering health problem in first-responders in the years since the World Trade Center terrorist attack is published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.