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Early Study Examines Cancer Risk in Ground Zero Firefighters

Article date: September 8, 2011

By Stacy Simon

A study of New York City firefighters who responded to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) shows they are a little more likely to have cancer than firefighters who did not work at the site. This is the most in-depth study so far to examine whether exposure to Ground Zero increased cancer risk.

The medical researchers -- some from the New York City Fire Department and some from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine -- say an increased risk makes sense, because the firefighters were exposed to asbestos, lead and other cancer-causing agents in dust and smoke. But they are cautious about the findings because their 7-year follow-up time is short for studying cancer and because they did not find an increased risk of any specific type of cancer.

They monitored the health of almost 10,000 male firefighters for 7 years after 9/11. About 90% of them had worked at Ground Zero, and were exposed to the dust and smoke. There were 263 cases of cancer in the exposed group, compared to 135 cases in the non-exposed group. Cancer types included stomach, colon, melanoma, prostate, thyroid, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leukemia.

They calculated that WTC-exposed firefighters in the study had a 32% greater risk for developing any cancer than non-exposed firefighters. When they ruled out cancers that were diagnosed in the first two years after 9/11, reasoning that the cause of the cancer pre-dated 9/11, the risk was only 19% greater.

There was not an increase in lung cancer among the exposed firefighters. In fact, WTC-exposed firefighters had significantly lower rates of lung cancer than the general population. But this may be because it can take decades for lung cancer to develop. And in general, firefighters are healthier than the general population because they have lower smoking rates, strict health requirements for the job, and greater physical fitness standards.

The study is published in the Sept. 3, 2011 issue of The Lancet. In an accompanying editorial, James M. Melius of the New York State Laborers’ Health Fund says the study comes at an important time for the federally funded medical follow-up of first responders. Dr. Melius says the study provides some indication that adding cancer treatments, which are not covered under the program, should be considered.

Reviewed by: Members of the ACS Medical Content Staff

ACS News Center stories are provided as a source of cancer-related news and are not intended to be used as press releases.

Citation: Early Assessment of Cancer Outcomes in New York City Firefighters After the 9/11 Attacks: An Observational Cohort Study. Published in the Sept. 3, 2011 issue of The Lancet (Vol. 378, No. 9794). First author: Rachel Zeig-Owens, MPH, Fire Department of the City of New York, Brooklyn, NY.

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