Long-lasting sensory loss in WTC workers

May 18, 2010

New research from the Monell Center and collaborating institutions reports that workers exposed to the complex mixture of toxic airborne chemicals following the 9/11 disaster had a decreased ability to detect odors and irritants two years after the exposure.

"The nose performs many sensory functions that are critical for human health and safety," said lead author Pamela Dalton, PhD, MPH, an environmental psychologist at Monell. "The that detects irritants is the first line of defense to protect the lungs against airborne . The loss of the ability of the nose to respond to a strong irritant means that the reflexes that protect the lungs from toxic exposures will not be triggered."

Individuals involved in rescue, recovery, demolition and clean-up at the World Trade Center (WTC) were exposed to a complex mixture of smoke, dust, fumes, and gases. In the study, reported online in the journal , Dalton and collaborators studied 102 individuals who worked or volunteered at the WTC site on 9/11 and during the days and weeks afterward to determine whether this exposure affected their ability to detect odors and irritants.

Forty-four percent of the workers reported being in lower Manhattan on 9/11 and 97 percent worked on the site during the week after the buildings' collapse.

Two years after the exposure, the WTC workers had decreased sensitivity to odors and irritants as compared to similar workers with no WTC exposure. Twenty-two percent of the WTC workers had a diminished ability to detect odors and nearly 75 percent had an impaired ability to detect irritants.

Workers exposed to the immediately after the buildings' collapse had the most extreme loss of sensitivity to irritants, with an almost complete inability to detect the nasal irritant used in the study.

Almost none of the individuals tested recognized that their ability to detect odors and irritants was compromised.

Health screenings of WTC workers had documented the effects of inhaled exposure on the lungs and respiratory function, but little was known about the impact on sensory systems of the nose. These sensory systems include the olfactory system, which detects odors, and the somatosensory system, responsible for detecting irritants, chemicals that cause pain, tingling, burning, stinging, or prickling.

The inability to detect irritants and odors is a critical safety concern, especially since the workers were not aware of their impairment.

"Odors also serve a protective function, such as the ability to identify smoke from a fire, leaking gas, or spoiled food," said Dalton.

The authors suggest that the ability to smell and detect irritants should be evaluated regularly in WTC responders and other workers having pollutant exposures.

Future studies will attempt to follow the workers to assess recovery and identify factors associated with more complete recovery.

Explore further: Antiseptic prevents deaths in newborns

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Sniffing out uses for the 'electronic nose'

Mar 10, 2008

Despite 25 years of research, development of an “electronic nose” even approaching the capabilities of the human sniffer remains a dream, chemists in Germany conclude in an overview on the topic. Their review of R&D on ...

NIST releases final WTC 7 investigation report

Nov 20, 2008

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) today released its final report on the Sept. 11, 2001, collapse of the 47-story World Trade Center building 7 (WTC 7) in New York City. The final report ...

Recommended for you

Antiseptic prevents deaths in newborns

5 hours ago

A low-cost antiseptic used to cleanse the cord after birth could help reduce infant death rates in developing countries by 12%, a systematic review published in The Cochrane Library suggests. Authors of the review found ...

LA story: Cleaner air, healthier kids

12 hours ago

A 20-year study finds that millennial children in Southern California breathe easier than ones who came of age in the '90s, for a reason as clear as the air in Los Angeles today.

Better midlife fitness may slow brain aging

13 hours ago

People with poor physical fitness in their 40s may have lower brain volumes by the time they hit 60, an indicator of accelerated brain aging, according to new research presented at the American Heart Association EPI/Lifestyle ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.