Report: 9/11 First Responders at High Risk for Three Cancer Types

First responders at the World Trade Center at increased risk for thyroid, prostate cancer.

In this Oct. 11, 2001 photo, firefighters make their way over the ruins of the World Trade Center through clouds of dust and smoke.
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First responders to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center have a higher rate of prostate cancer, thyroid cancer, and multiple myeloma than would be expected in the normal population, according to a new analysis by researchers at the New York City Department of Health.

Researchers determined that of the 9,853 firefighters employed by the New York Fire Department, the rate of prostate cancer was about 40 percent higher than would have been expected; thyroid cancer occurred twice as often as it does in the general population; and there were seven cases of multiple myeloma, compared to an expected two cases.

Steven Stellman, one of the report's co-authors, says that with such a small number of cancer cases occurring, it's difficult to say what the ultimate fallout will be from the attacks.

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"The operative word is it's early: The majority of cancers take a very long time to develop from exposure to chemicals, it can take years to decades to know for sure," he says. Overall, the total number of cancers detected in rescue workers was not significantly different from what would have been expected, though the appearance of those three types of cancer was significantly higher.

"We know there was an enormous, intense exposure to risky mixtures of known carcinogens," he says.

According to the report, the debris from the World Trade Center "exposed hundreds of thousands of people to dust, debris, pulverized building material, and potentially toxic emissions … [containing] known and suspected carcinogens."

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But scientists have no way of knowing how poor the air quality was in the days following the attack, because air quality monitoring stations were destroyed, and restoring them was not an immediate priority.

The report says people who lived, worked, or attended school in lower Manhattan during the attack do not appear to be developing cancer at an increased rate. Previous reports have shown that people living near the World Trade Center during the attack have developed asthma and post traumatic stress disorder at a higher rate than people in the general population.

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For a cancer study, the sample of nearly 10,000 firefighters is relatively small, but Stellman says that as time goes on, they'll be able to get a clearer picture about whether first responders develop cancer as a result of poor air quality exposure.

"Our primary position is that it's still very early to know about the cancer outcomes," he says. "But it's a serious public health issue that many people want to know about, and we felt it was important to make our current findings known."

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Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com.