Firefighters who were on scene at the World Trade Center in the weeks and months following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are 19 percent more likely to develop cancer than colleagues who were not exposed, according to a new study.
The study, the first to look at cancer rates among all of the exposed firefighters, evaluated the health of 9,853 WTC-exposed and non-exposed firefighters over the seven years following 9/11.
Firefighters working in the rubble of the World Trade Center were 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.
Senior author David Prezant, M.D., professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, and his colleagues looked at cancer incidence and its possible association with exposure in the first seven years after 9/11.
They compared the cancer incidence rates in WTC-exposed firefighters with cancer incidence in non-exposed firefighters.
In explaining how exposure to WTC dust apparently led to an overall increase in cancer incidence among WTC-exposed firefighters, Dr. Prezant called the finding surprising due to the short latency period but “biologically plausible” because WTC exposure included polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls and dioxins—all known carcinogens.
He noted that WTC exposure also caused chronic inflammation and that such inflammation “has been implicated as a risk factor for cancer in experimental and epidemiological studies.”
The study is published in this week’s 9/11 special issue of The Lancet.