9/11 first responders face higher cancer risk 20 years later

By Amy Norton Health Day reporter

MONDAY, September 13, 2021 (HealthDay News) – Twenty years later, responders to the World Trade Center attacks in New York are showing increased risks of certain cancers, two new studies confirm.

Researchers found higher than average rates of prostate cancer among firefighters, medics and other workers who worked hard at the disaster site from September 11, 2001.

And compared to firefighters in other major US cities, people exposed to the 9/11 disaster had higher risks of prostate and thyroid cancer.

World Trade Center rescue and recovery workers are known to have above-average rates of some cancers.

But the new studies help clarify the situation further, experts said.

In one, the researchers found that the increased risks of prostate cancer began to appear surprisingly early – just over five years after workers’ exposure to the Twin Tower site and the toxic dust cloud that enveloped him.

“We didn’t expect the latency period to be this short,” said lead researcher Charles Hall, a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

Often, cancer has a long latency, which means it develops many years after a person’s initial exposure to a carcinogen.

Hall said the new findings suggest that “we shouldn’t assume that all cancers have a long latency period.”

And that, he said, could inform the medical follow-up of responders during other large-scale disasters, such as major forest fires.

“It implies that when we have a disaster like this, we may want to establish surveillance earlier,” Hall said.

The other study compared New York City firefighters who responded to September 11 with firefighters from other major US cities. He found that compared to their colleagues, 9/11 firefighters had a 13% higher risk of developing any type of cancer over the next 15 years.

Two specific cancers stood out: New York firefighters had more than double the risk of thyroid cancer and a 39% higher risk of prostate cancer. They were also generally about four years younger when they were diagnosed with cancer, the researchers reported.

Hall also worked on this study. He said the findings support the hypothesis that 9/11 exposures – and not just general occupational exposures of being a firefighter – contribute to cancer in some stakeholders.

Both studies were published on September 10 in the journal Occupational and environmental medicine.

A federal law passed in 2010 created the World Trade Center Health Program to provide health care to 9/11 responders and civilian survivors of the attack. Among its benefits are cancer screening.

Dr Geoffrey Calvert, senior medical advisor for the health program, said the new findings add to stakeholders’ understanding of cancer risks.

He agreed that the period between exposure and increased risk of prostate cancer was shorter than expected.

As it stands, however, there are no special screening recommendations for World Trade Center responders or survivors. They are “identical” to what is advised to the general public, said Calvert, who wrote an editorial published with the studies.

When it comes to prostate cancer screening, men aged 55 to 69 are generally advised to ask their doctor if this is right for them.

In the new prostate cancer study, Hall’s team looked at data from nearly 54,400 men who responded to the World Trade Center disaster, including firefighters, police, paramedics, construction workers, volunteers and cleaners.

Overall, 1,120 men were diagnosed with prostate cancer through 2015. Until 2006, responder disease risk was no greater than that of men in New York State in general.

But that changed from 2007, when their risk rose to 24% higher than the norm. And firefighters who arrived on the morning of September 11 appeared to be at greater risk than workers who arrived later.

Hall said this suggested a “real effect” from exposure to the toxic plume at the site. The massive cloud is known to have contained carcinogens such as dioxins, asbestos, benzene and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), Hall noted.

He advised 9/11 responders to participate in the health surveillance program if they had not already done so. “There’s no reason not to, even if you’re healthy – or especially if you are,” Hall said.

Calvert said the program “remains steadfast in its mission.”

“From [program’s] the successes are its efforts to ensure excellence and efficiency in the provision of medical surveillance and treatment, for the physical and mental health problems associated with 9/11 exposures, ”he said.

More information

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information on the World Trade Center health program.

SOURCES: Charles Hall, PhD, professor, Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York; Geoffrey Calvert, MD, Senior Medical Advisor, World Trade Center Health Program, US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Washington, DC; Occupational and environmental medicine, September 10, 2021, online


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