Studying the Impacts of Dust From the World Trade Center

Firefighter covered in dust from attacks on World Trade Center.Anthony Correia/Getty Images

Chronic health conditions ranging from cancer to “World Trade Center cough” have been attributed to exposure to dust from the September 11, 2001, attack and collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Biology Professor Ann Marie DiLorenzo and her research team have been determining the impact of that dust on lung cells since 2007.

“Over the past years, my team has been able to pinpoint and publish papers on several cellular mechanisms thought to play a role in the decreased lung function of World Trade Center first responders,” DiLorenzo says.

Her work has focused on the combination of heavy metals — such as lead and zinc — present in a sample of dust taken from the Ground Zero site at Market Street in Manhattan that was given to her by the late Paul Lioy, a Rutgers professor and College of Science and Mathematics Advisory Board member. Her research exposes in vitro — or test tube — cultures of human lung cells to the Ground Zero dust.

“My student research teams have been focusing on trying to determine if the effects of the World Trade Center dust can be shown, with certainty, at the cellular level to cause apoptosis, or cell death, and carcinogenic genetic mutations,” she explains. “I try to find the specific location in a living cell where the toxic dust’s cocktail of chemicals is doing damage.” Such cellular damage would ultimately cause the decreased lung function seen in many first responders and area residents.

To date, DiLorenzo and her team have published four papers detailing the cellular effects of World Trade Center dust on human lung cells, including a 2009 study implicating the dust in a decreased level of cell growth and an increased level of cell apoptosis.

A 2012 study suggested that the high alkalinity of the dust at Ground Zero contributed to the diminished lung function in World Trade Center workers and victims, while a 2013 report looked at how the synergistic effects of zinc and lead in the dust might contribute to respiratory illnesses.

“Our most recent 2016 publication presents evidence of the mutagenic effects of the toxic dust, which seems to indicate the serious connection to the development of cancers in exposed individuals,” she notes.

Ann Marie DiLorenzo and students are studying World Trade Center dust.Ann Marie DiLorenzo and students are studying World Trade Center dust.

DiLorenzo’s research continues unabated. “We are designing experiments to precisely pinpoint what type of damage is being caused by the toxic World Trade Center dust that then results in abnormal cell behavior.”

According to DiLorenzo, this work has broad implications for the future of cancer prevention, which relies heavily on developing models for identifying risks and tailoring prevention strategies based on genetic status.