Elevated Rates of Binge Drinking for Those Who Experienced 9/11

Frequent drinking persisted many years later

Published on August 6, 2014by Elaine Meyer

Those who had significant exposure to the events of September 11, 2001, reported highly elevated levels of binge drinking five and six years after the attacks, according to a new study by researchers at Columbia’s department of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, department of psychiatry, and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Among the authors are Dr. Deborah Hasin, professor of epidemiology in psychiatry, Dr. Steven Stellman, professor of clinical epidemiology and research director for the Department of Health’s Word Trade Center Health Registry, and Dr. Katherine Keyes, assistant professor of epidemiology. The study adds to previous research that has found a relationship between binge drinking and exposure to large-scale disasters.

“Our findings are relevant for long-term post 9/11 monitoring and treatment under existing federally funded healthcare services for survivors and responders, and more broadly for psychological and alcohol screening and counseling following a disaster,” says Dr. Stellman.

The researchers looked at the drinking habits of 41,284 individuals from the registry who were at or near the World Trade Center during and after the terrorist attacks on September 11. This included workers and volunteers involved in rescue, recovery, and cleanup efforts and people who lived, worked, or happened to be near the site.

To determine how exposed an individual was to the attack, the researchers measured the number of attack-related events that a person experienced, such as being in one of the towers when the planes hit, being exposed to the intense dust cloud that formed after the attacks, or sustaining an injury. The research team defined binge drinking as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks on five or more occasions in the last 30 days. Nearly 14 percent of those who had “very high” exposure to 9/11 reported binge drinking, as did nearly 10 percent of those with “high” exposure. Of people who had “medium” exposure, 7.5 percent reported binge drinking, while 4.4 percent of those with “low” exposure did.

The study also looked at the relationship between frequent binge drinking and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, after the attacks. Rates of binge drinking were significantly elevated in people with PTSD, at 14.8 percent, over people without PTSD, at 6.3 percent. The researchers excluded all people who had been medically diagnosed with PTSD before the attacks.

Past research has found an elevated use of alcohol among populations exposed to the Oklahoma City bombing and Hurricane Katrina.

“Many studies have shown a relationship between adult trauma and drinking outcomes, but the present study contributes important new information by showing that the relationship between a major trauma and drinking persists over many years,” says Dr. Hasin.

Dr. Stellman adds that the 9/11 registry “has a program of actively referring enrollees to healthcare services that could serve as a model for future disasters.”

Edited by Dana March