In the decade since 9/11, doctors have monitored the health of firefighters who worked tirelessly during rescue missions and clean-up efforts near the collapsed Twin Towers. But a recent analysis suggests we may continue to see the long-term health effects for years to come.
Previous research links exposure to dust and debris to health issues such as multiple myeloma, a type of bone cancer. Another review shows higher incidence rates of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and prostate and testicular cancer among male firefighters as well. More studies share similar results.
But after looking at data from 9,853 male firefighters — some working at the 9/11 site, others not — whose health information predates 2001, researchers found these men show higher rates of cancer than their counterparts not exposed to Ground Zero and other healthy men.
Researchers excluded men over the age of 60 to rule out the possibility of age-related cancers and took lifestyle factors such as smoking into consideration. Because not enough data was available for women, the team limited its focus to male firefighters.
Firefighters exposed to the World Trade Centers (any day from Sept. 11, 2001 until it closed in July 2002) had 10 percent higher cancer rates than similar men in the general population and around 32 percent higher rates than firefighters not exposed. Researchers considered all types of malignant — or harmful — cancer in their analysis.
On one hand, the findings make sense, especially since the dust and debris led to high levels of “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls and dioxins” in the air, all of which “are known carcinogens,” the authors write. Asbestos, fiber glass and toxic fumes from burning jet fuel posed risks, too, according to a press release.
But, on the other hand, the authors are cautious about their findings. They admit there might be a confounding factor that affects people’s chances of developing cancer that scientists could not measure or account for.
Also, they warn the study’s results shouldn’t be generalized to others exposed to the World Trade Center area. Because firefighters worked the closest to the site, they tended to have higher exposure levels than others evacuating or helping at a greater distance.
If exposure to dust and smoke indeed increased firefighters’ chances of developing cancer, then it might be worth reconsidering adding cancer to the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, as pointed out in one New York Times article. The program originally helped individuals who fell sick after being exposed to toxins at the World Trade Center site.
Though other research needs to strengthen this link between cancer and exposure, officials and the medical community say studies such as this one, featured in The Lancet, are sure to shape policy in coming years.