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Danger in the Dust: Study Finds WTC Responders Face Increased Risk of Cancer

first responder WTC

Rescue workers and volunteers at the World Trade Center ruins after 9/11 continue to suffer the consequences of their exposure to cancer-causing agents.

The twin towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) catastrophically collapsed after being strategically attacked by two hijacked airplanes.  Few can forget the horror of this event, and the ensuing video of the dust cloud that erupted as the buildings disappeared.  For those on the ground, and who toiled in the debris trying to save lives and recover remains, the nightmare may never end.

Recent Study Reveals Findings from Rutgers

A recent study published in the International Journal of Cancer reveals findings of a research team from Rutgers that explored the incidence of head and neck cancers in those who were present at the WTC site.  The study came about from observations made by clinicians who treat WTC responders who noticed a high incidence of oral and head cancers in their patients.

The idea that WTC responders are vulnerable to increased health risk due to their exposure to the site is not new.  The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010 established the WTC Health Program and later, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.  The Act is named for James Zadroga, an NYPD police officer whose death was the first attributed to exposure to toxic materials at the WTC site.

The Path of the Dust

According to studies conducted since that time, the dust cloud generated by the collapse of the twin towers dissipated throughout the south end of Manhattan Island.  The debris cloud was generated by the successive collapse of floor after floor of each building, projecting aerosolized gypsum, glass and fiber insulation, and other materials explosively into the air.

The dust settled throughout Lower Manhattan, coated the ground, building exteriors and residential and commercial interiors, affecting people of all ages.  A non-smoker who had enjoyed good health, Mr. Zadroga died of respiratory disease.  Upon autopsy, foreign material found embedded in his lung was attributed to his exposure at the WTC site.

In the recent study, researchers found WTC-exposed first responders experienced a 40 percent increase in diagnosis and treatment of throat, neck, and head cancers between the years 2009 and 2012.  Given the latency period of these diseases, or the time it takes for them to develop in the body after exposure, clinicians expect the trend to continue.  Other findings include:

  • Oropharyngeal, or throat cancers had the highest diagnosis rate during the study period
  • Diagnosis of head and neck cancers were more often diagnosed in WTC responders over the age of 55
  • These cancers are associated with those who worked in law enforcement or protective service professions who were present at the WTC site or its perimeter

These studies, and those that follow, will continue to document the danger in the dust that followed the tragedy on a sunny day in September 18 years ago.

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