In FDNY, Even Post-9/11 Hires at Risk for Cancer

Chief Leader - October 29, 2019

by BOB HENNELLY

Eighteen years after 9/11, the Fire Department continues to advance epidemiological research into the cancer risks not just for the department’s World Trade Center responders but for those who were subsequently hired.

According to that research, active-duty Firefighters who came on after 9/11 have an elevated risk for contracting certain cancers, according to Deputy Assistant Chief Mike Meyers, the FDNY's Chief of Safety.

’14 Percent More Susceptible’

“Believe it or not, among the Firefighters who were not yet on the department during 9/11, we have 65 cases of severe [presumptive] cancers,” Mr. Meyers said during a phone interview. “Overall, Firefighters are 14 percent more susceptible than the general population to cancer, and the cancers we are worried about are hematological, thyroid, bladder and testicular cancers.”

He added that the dual-track research had produced even-more-sobering statistics for the WTC cohort. “We have already 1,000 cases of our 9/11 Firefighters who got cancer,” he said. “But our Bureau of Health Service projected 2,400 cases of new cancer between 2017 and 2031. So, looking ahead, we are talking about 25 percent of our workforce present at the WTC coming down with some kind of cancer.”

In June, Dr. Jacqueline Moline, director of the Northwell Health Queens World Trade Center Program, testified before Congress that more than 50 percent of the firefighters who worked at the WTC have developed a persistent respiratory condition.”

The FDNY lost 340 firefighters the day of the 9/11 attack and has lost more than 200 in the years since due to their WTC exposure.

Eyeing Breast-Cancer Cases

As the number of women in the Firefighter title grows, Mr. Meyers said the department will be on the lookout for female breast cancer. “Departments that have been ahead of us in terms of the numbers of women who had some issues [found] that in the studies they conducted,” he explained.

The in-house medical research has been overseen by Dr. David J. Prezant, the FDNY’s Chief Medical Officer. It was the focal point of a day-long seminar on Oct. 15 sponsored by the First Responder Center for Excellence, the Firefighter Cancer Support Network and the FDNY.

According to a flyer for the Randall’s Island event, “the dramatic increase in the incidence of occupational cancers is one of the most important problems facing the fire service today.”

Chief Meyers said one hazard firefighters face is the toxic fumes generated when plastic building materials, rugs and interior furnishings burn. “There is no such thing as a clean burn anymore,” he said. “Now, we are dealing with all these plastics and who knows what.”

The aim of the gathering was to help fire departments communicate to firefighters the elevated cancer risk they face while also educating them on reducing their risks through lifestyle choices like exercise, better work/life balance and nutrition.

Heart disease remains the nation’s number one killer for firefighters.

Anti-Smoking Push Worked

Mr. Meyers said the department’s research confirmed that investing in education by encouraging firefighters to be more health-conscious made a difference.

“One of the things that we were amazed most by was that New York City firefighters are below the curve as far as contracting lung cancer, and that the incidence of it in our ranks is actually lower than in the general population,” he said. “We believe that’s directly linked to an anti-smoking” campaign “10 to 12 years ago by our Bureau of Health Service and our elimination of smoking in the firehouse.”

FDNY officials say the department’s annual physical is key to keeping members healthy and helping them address issues that could become problematic, including gradual weight gain.

Chief Meyers said the most important takeaway from the seminar was that firefighters had to be proactive about their own health. “Today, with pre-cancer checks and screening, there is a 90-percent chance that you will be able to beat cancer if you detect it early,” he said.