A new study in the British medical journal The Lancet suggests that firefighters who were exposed to the caustic dust and smoke in the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center in 2001 are 19 percent more likely to develop cancer than those who were not at the site. Dr. David J. Prezant, the chief medical officer for the New York Fire Department, led the study and said that there is an “increased likelihood for the development of any type of cancer” for those who worked in the ruins of the twin towers.
Currently, cancer is not an illness covered by the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which has set aside $4.3 billion to treat those suffering from health problems as a result of the 9/11 attacks. An earlier federal review of scientific evidence published on July 27 had concluded that 9/11 first responders and residents of ground zero who developed cancer after the 2001 attacks did not qualify for aid from the federal government program at least until 2012. Asthma and respiratory ailments have so far primarily been seen as falling under the act.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is charged to conduct periodic reviews of studies to consider adding other health problems to the list. Representative Carolyn R. Mahoney, the chief sponsor of the Zadroga Act in the House, indeed said that the new study is “building the case” and that she believed that there will “eventually be a consensus in the medical community” that supports a link, according to the New York Times.
The report studied cancer occurrence in nearly 10,000 male Fire Department personnel in the seven years after Sept. 11, 2001. (There were too few women to create a meaningful sample size.) Firefighters were eligible to participate if they were active on Jan. 1, 1996, and if their exposure to substances at the World Trade Center site was known. Of those in the study, 8,927 were classified as exposed, meaning they spent at least one day at the site in the 10 months after Sept. 11. Almost all of those were exposed in the first two weeks after the attack.
There were 263 cancer cases in the exposed population, reflecting a cancer rate 19 percent higher than that of the group not exposed. The cancer rate of the exposed group was only 10 percent higher than that of American men over all. And the group of firefighters who were not exposed had a lower rate than the general population, which the researchers said may be a result of their overall physical fitness and low smoking rates.
The study found no link between exposure to the wreckage and debris at ground zero and specific types of cancer. Some types of cancer – melanoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and thyroid and prostate cancer — may occur more frequently in exposed firefighters than in the general population.
The Lancet also published two other reports about health issues and the 9/11 attacks on Thursday. Researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center found that respiratory, gastrointestinal and mental illness among rescue and recovery workers have continued to occur. A report by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found a lower mortality rate among recovery and rescue workers as compared to the general population of New York City; this study’s authors said this lower rate was due to the “healthy-worker effect,” that those who were at the site were more likely to be employed and thus “a group typically healthier than the general population.”
While Dr. Prezant’s study provides the “strongest evidence” yet of a link between ground zero and cancer, more research still needs to be done. Dr. Prezant himself noted that “the results were far from conclusive.” But the new study does indicate that concerns about a higher incidence of cancer in 9/11 firefighters aren’t outside the realm of possibility.
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Photo taken September 19, 2001, by mashleymorgan