Many Ground Zero rescue workers battling cancer years later


Many of the rescue workers that arrived at the ruins of the World Trade Center after 9/11 now face their own private battles for survival, a pair of new studies shows.

The first study found that over the next decade, New York City Fire Department employees who worked at Ground Zero are expected to develop cancer at a greater rate than their fellow New Yorkers .

Ground Zero firefighters are being diagnosed with the pernicious blood cancer multiple myeloma years earlier than would be expected, and their cancer is more aggressive than is typical, the second study discovered.

Rachel Zeig-Owens, lead author of the first study and an epidemiologist with the FDNY World Trade Center Health Program said those who were at the site, must continue to have cancer screenings for the next 15 to 20 years.

When the twin towers fell September 11, 2001, people were exposed to a brew of airborne toxins that included a number of known carcinogens, Zeig-Owens said. These included dangerous heavy metals, hydrocarbons and asbestos.

Zeig-Owens and her colleagues conducted the first study to help the World Trade Center Health Program plan its response to a possible wave of future cancer cases caused by these toxins.

They estimated that in the 20 years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an estimated 2,960 new cancer cases will develop among rescue workers who responded to Ground Zero.

The rescue workers are at increased risk of prostate cancer, thyroid cancer and melanoma in particular, the researchers found.

According to the researchers, the estimated cost of the first year of cancer treatment for those people will be more than $235 million over two decades.

Then a separate group of researchers undertook the second study after noting that New York City firefighters appeared to be developing aggressive forms of multiple myeloma at younger ages, said lead author Dr. Ola Landgren. He is chief of the Myeloma Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

To predict future cases of multiple myeloma, Landgren and his colleagues analyzed blood taken from 781 Ground Zero firefighters as part of a screening program.

The researchers looked for a disease called monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS), a usually benign condition in which an abnormal protein shows up in the blood.

The research concluded Ground Zero workers have rates of MGUS nearly twice as high as a comparison group of people from Minnesota who were not exposed to the toxins.

It’s tough to assess the direct impact of Ground Zero because firefighters typically have a higher cancer rate than average folks, said Brawley, who wrote an editorial accompanying the studies.

Zeig-Owens agreed, noting that a follow-up study is underway that would establish a comparison group of firefighters who did not work at Ground Zero.