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Lancet Study Sees Higher Cancer Risk among 9/11 Firefighters

Sep 6, 2011 | Parker Waichman LLP

New York City firefighters exposed to toxic dust and smoke at Ground Zero in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks face a higher risk of developing any type cancer, according to an important new study.  The lead author of study, which appears in a special issue of The Lancet, told Reuters that the research ''clearly shows World Trade Center exposure" caused the spike in cancer rates among the Ground Zero first responders.

According to the Lancet report,  firefighters responding to the World Trade Center disaster would have been exposed to potentially hazardous aerosolized dust consisting of pulverized cement, glass fibers, asbestos, lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, and polychlorinated furans and dioxins produced as combustion byproducts from the collapsed and burning buildings. They were also exposed to potentially toxic fumes -- initially from burning jet fuel and, during the 10-month recovery effort, from diesel smoke emitted by heavy equipment.

fireman   The study looked at nearly 10,000 male firefighters, and limited the cancers it examined to those that developed within seven years of exposure.  The researchers adjusted for factors such as age and prior cancer diagnosis that could have skewed results.

The study's results "support the need to continue monitoring firefighters and others who responded to the World Trade Center disaster or participated in recovery and cleanup at the site,’ said Dr. David Prezant of the Fire Department of the City of New York, the report’s  lead author.  "This monitoring should include cancer screening and efforts to prevent cancer from developing in exposed individuals."

Like other studies, this research did not see an increase risk of lung cancer among exposed firefighters.  This did not surprise the researchers, however, as it can many years for lung cancer to develop after toxic exposure.

To date, only a handful of smaller studies have shown increased rates of cancer among Ground Zero first rsponders.  The Lancet study was the first effort to assess the incidence of cancer among an entire cohort exposed to dust and fumes at Ground Zero.

The studies findings come just two months after the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) determined that Ground Zero responders suffering from cancer would not be eligible for compensation under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.  NIOSH made the decision to exclude cancer because, "Insufficient evidence exists at this time to propose a rule to add cancer, or a certain type of cancer."  Of course, cancer can take decades to develop, so it’s not surprising that concrete evidence has been slow to surface.

The Lancet study authors said they expect their new study will feature prominently in the next NIOSH WTC cancer report scheduled for 2012.  According to a Reuters report, Dr. Prezant said Dr. John Howard, director of NIOSH, was aware of the study's findings.

According to a report from The Wall Street Journal, James Melius of the New York State Laborers' Health Fund, who reviewed the research, acknowledged that the new study has limitations.  But he pointed out that it could  40 years or more after exposure for cancer to appear, by which time many Ground Zero responders will have already died.

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

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