Study Points to WTC Cancer Link

The Wall Street Journal - September 02, 2011

by DEVLIN BARRETT and NIKKI WALLER

Rates Among Firefighters Who Were at Site Higher Than for Those Who Weren't

Firefighters at the World Trade Center after both towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001. Researchers found that those who worked at the site are more likely to have cancer. Firefighters who worked at Ground Zero are 19% more likely to have cancer than their colleagues who did not work at the site, according to newly published research that could pave the way for government payments to those suffering from some types of cancer.

The research marks the first substantive findings on the difficult question of whether working at the World Trade Center site increased cancer risk. For years, firefighters, police officers and construction workers have argued that there is overwhelming anecdotal evidence that work at Ground Zero caused cancer, while researchers continue to caution that it will take 20 or 40 years to prove such a link.

Published in the Sept. 3 issue of the Lancet, the research led by Dr. David Prezant, the head doctor for the New York Fire Department, concludes that an association between World Trade Center exposure and cancer is "biologically plausible'' due to findings of "a modest excess of cancer in exposed firefighters.''

The study's authors also cautioned against drawing broader conclusions, saying it would be wrong to assume that because cancer is more likely among World Trade Center firefighters, it is also more likely among other groups of people exposed to the site.

"This is not an epidemic but an increased risk," Dr. Prezant said in a conference call with reporters Thursday. He added that, at minimum, the study is a reminder for first responders and others to heed doctors' advice on tumor screenings and to participate in cancer monitoring programs.

Advocates for Ground Zero responders and New York lawmakers will try to use the study to try to convince officials overseeing a new Sept. 11 health program to pay compensation to people who developed cancer after exposure to the site. The program's current rules do not allow for payment for cancer, but the rules can be revised.

Kenny Specht, a 43-year-old retired firefighter who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2007 after having worked at Ground Zero, said the study should force administrators of the compensation fund to immediately qualify those firefighters who have developed cancer.

Even some experts who support compensation for those who have contracted cancer, though, cautioned that the findings do not definitively prove Ground Zero work caused cancer. Dr. James Melius of the New York State Laborers' Health Fund, who reviewed the research, said the new information has limitations.

"It is a major study, but it is not definitive,'' he said. "We know cancers can take up to 40 years or more after exposure to appear, so we know we're nowhere near being able to count them all.''

Mr. Melius argues that there's little point to waiting 40 years--by which time, presumably, many of the Ground Zero workers will have died--to decide whether they are entitled to compensation for their illnesses.

"We ought to give responders the benefit of the doubt,'' he said.

The new report found an increase in the sum total of cancers among responders, though researchers, citing the relatively small numbers involved, are hesitant to point to a higher incidence of any specific cancers.

"This study does not have the statistical power, the number of cases necessary to draw any conclusions about individual cancers," Dr. Prezant said Thursday.

Ground Zero workers and health advocates have long argued that the thick dust plume from the collapsing towers--and the long months spent toiling atop the burning wreckage--forced recovery workers to inhale and swallow dangerous amounts of tiny toxic particles.

Prior research has already found an increase in breathing and gastrointestinal problems among 9/11 responders.

Perhaps most surprising about the new cancer research, though, is the finding that lung cancer has actually appeared less often than expected among the Ground Zero firefighters: Their lung cancer rates are 58% lower than in the general population.

The relatively low incidence of lung cancer among the responder population may be explained by the fact that lung cancers occur on average about 20 years after exposure to toxins, the researchers said.

"We did not expect lung cancer to develop in this time," Dr. Prezant said of the study period, which tracked cancer incidences between Sept. 11, 2001, and Sept. 11, 2008.

The cancer study compared firefighters who were at Ground Zero to firefighters who were not--an important distinction because firefighters tend to be healthier than the general population.

Even compared to males in the general population, the firefighters had a 10% increased incidence of cancer.

A separate study, based on data in the World Trade Center Health Registry, found a lower mortality rate among recovery workers and civilians exposed to Ground Zero than New York City's general population. Those at Ground Zero were 43% less likely to have died from any cause than the general public since the terrorist attack.

The authors of that study said they were not surprised at that finding because they expect a long latency period for illnesses likely related to Ground Zero exposure.

Subsequent studies will continue to track the firefighters, as well as other emergency workers, said Dr. Prezant.

"This is the first part of the story," he said.