NYC health department says no clear link between 9/11 and cancer

Photo dated 11 September 2001 shows the twin towers of the World Trade Center burning after two planes crashed into each building in New York. (AFP Photo/Files/Stan Honda)
The results of a study scheduled to be released this week by the New York City health department concludes that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were likely not responsible for cases of cancer developed by survivors.

The New York Times released a preview of the study on Tuesday, which they report shows “no clear link” between cancers and the debris found at the site of the World Trade Center.

“Over all, there was no increase in the cancer rate of those studied compared with the rate of the general population,” the Times reports.

The health department says they reached that conclusion after examining around 55,700 people, including first-responders, rescue workers, residents of Lower Manhattan and even just passers-by who were exposed to the clouds of dust on September 11, 2001.

Roughly 3,000 American died during the 9/11 attacks, but many survivors have complained in the decade since that they’ve developed various forms of cancer from inhaling toxic fumes released after the Twin Towers were struck.

On the ten-year anniversary of the tragedy in 2011, Dr. David Prezant of the New York City Fire Department published a study that suggested firefighters that were exposed to the dust and smoke that came from the collapse of the Twin Towers have a 19 percent greater risk of developing various types of cancer when compared to other first-responders that were not on the scene. The results of the latest health department study confirms that rescue workers present at the World Trade Center are roughly twice as likely to develop prostate and thyroid cancers than those who weren’t, but doctors are dismissing that fact as something that was to be expected.

“Cancer’s always a bad thing,” New York Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas A Farley tells the Times. “But the prostate and thyroid cancer was no more common in people who were more exposed, which is something you would expect if it was caused by the disaster.”

The Times reports that rescue and recovery workers were likely to have been more diligently screened for those cancers than others, and that even cases of cancer identified in the study lacked a strong enough correlation to significantly worry researchers. Additionally, the ionizing radiation blamed for thyroid cancer has yet to be found in strong enough concentration in the carcinogenic materials the combusted at the site of the attack.

Even still, Dr. Farley cautions the Times that it could be decades before health officials can fully determine the extent of the damages caused on 9/11.

“Cancers take 20 years to develop,” he says, “and we might see something different 20 years down the line.”

“You don’t want to wait 20 to 30 years to get a definitive answer to which people may be suffering today,” adds the doctor.

Dr. Alfred I. Neugut, an oncologist and professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, tells the Times that he was not surprised by the results of the health department study.

“The 9/11 attack was a terrible thing, but it doesn’t cause everything in the world,” he says. “Cancer is a very specific outcome, and in most exposures, you have to be exposed for an extended time before you get the cancer.”

Just this past September, the government added around 50 different types of cancers to the list of diseases covered under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. At the time, the National Institute for Occupational Safety said, "The publication of this final rule marks an important step in the effort to provide needed treatment and care to 9/11 responders and survivors through the WTC Health Program.”

Roughly 70,000 people survived the 9/11 terrorist attack but have developed diseases covered under that health care act in the 11 years since.