Firefighters who responded to 9/11 attacks are 13% more likely to get cancer, study finds

Rescue and recovery workers were exposed to a ‘toxic environment’

Helen Elfer
Saturday 11 September 2021 18:18 BST
9/11 anniversary: The deadliest day in history for US firefighters
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Firefighters who responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center are significantly more likely to develop cancer than their colleagues who did not work at Ground Zero, a study has found.

Some 2,996 people died in the 2001 attacks when four airplanes were hijacked by terrorists. Two of the planes crashed into the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan, causing both buildings to collapse.

More than 15,000 New York firefighters, and other rescue and recovery workers, were exposed to asbestos, arsenic, benzene, sulfuric acid and other carcinogenic substances from the resulting fires, collapsed structures and related damage.

The report, published in journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine on 10th September, explained that while firefighters are often exposed to toxins and carcinogens on the job, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks Ground Zero was a particularly “toxic environment”.

Firefighters who had been on the ground subsequently had a 13 per cent greater chance of being diagnosed with cancer than first responders who hadn’t been there, researchers discovered.

The study looked at 10,786 firefighters who worked at the World Trade Center site during and after the 9/11 attacks. The group was found to have higher rates for all cancers including kidney cancer, lung cancer, melanoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, prostate cancer and thyroid cancer.

The difference was greatest for prostate cancer and thyroid cancer, which had rates 1.39 times higher and 2.53 times higher respectively.

World Trade Center firefighters were also found to be diagnosed with cancer at younger ages than other firefighters at a median age of 55.6 compared to 59.4.

The study’s authors, from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System, and the Fire Department of the City of New York, noted that the research was observational which means that they could not definitively say that working at Ground Zero caused those firefighters’ cancers. The researchers added that “heightened surveillance” could partly explain the higher rates of reported disease in that group.

The study said that “two decades post-9/11, clearer understanding of WTC-related risk requires extended follow-up and modelling studies [...] to identify workplace exposures in all firefighters”.

Over the past two decades, the Victim Compensation Fund has paid out more than $8 billion to those suffering health issues or economic losses as a result of the attacks. Many of those have been firefighters, police officers and first responders suffering from 9/11-related illnesses.

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