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Environ Health Perspect. 2010 Sep;118(9):1251-6. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1001924. Epub 2010 May 13.

Chemosensory loss: functional consequences of the world trade center disaster.

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  • 1Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.



Individuals involved in rescue, recovery, demolition, and cleanup at the World Trade Center (WTC) site were exposed to a complex mixture of airborne smoke, dust, combustion gases, acid mists, and metal fumes. Such exposures have the potential to impair nasal chemosensory (olfactory and trigeminal) function.


The goal of this study was to evaluate the prevalence of chemosensory dysfunction and nasal inflammation among these individuals.


We studied 102 individuals who worked or volunteered at the WTC site in the days and weeks during and after 11 September 2001 (9/11) and a comparison group with no WTC exposure matched to each participant on age, sex, and job title. Participants were comprehensively evaluated for chemosensory function and nasal inflammation in a single session. Individual exposure history was obtained from self-reported questionnaires.


The prevalence of olfactory and trigeminal nerve sensitivity loss was significantly greater in the WTC-exposed group relative to the comparison group [prevalence ratios (95% confidence intervals) = 1.96 (1.2-3.3) and 3.28 (2.7-3.9) for odor and irritation thresholds, respectively]. Among the WTC responders, however, individuals caught in the dust cloud from the collapse on 9/11 exhibited the most profound trigeminal loss. Analysis of the nasal lavage samples supported the clinical findings of chronic nasal inflammation among the WTC-exposed cohort.


The prevalence of significant chemosensory impairment in the WTC-exposed group more than 2 years after their exposure raises concerns for these individuals when the ability to detect airborne odors or irritants is a critical safety factor.


This outcome highlights the need for chemosensory evaluations among individuals with exposure to acute high or chronic levels of airborne pollutants.

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