Bloomberg News

Firefighter Cancer Risk Seen From World Trade Center Exposure

September 01, 2011

Sept. 2 (Bloomberg) -- Madeline Wiebicke is convinced the blood cancer that killed her husband Randy in March came from his work as a firefighter at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and during the cleanup after that day’s terrorist attack.

A study released in The Lancet, a U.K.-based medical journal, suggests her suspicions may be correct. The report found that firefighters who responded to the disaster were 19 percent more likely to have cancer in the 7 years that followed the attacks than those who weren’t there.

The research is the first to tie a higher cancer risk to first responders. It spurred calls for a review of a law that fails to include cancer in providing health coverage for Sept. 11 victims. The decision not to include the disease in the law, effective July 1, followed a review by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health this year that found there was too little evidence to provide a definitive link.

“My husband’s firehouse was right there, and they were down there for days at the beginning,” said Wiebicke, 51, whose husband developed multiple myeloma about two years ago. “In the beginning, they didn’t even have masks.”

The study’s finding isn’t a surprise, she said in a telephone interview. When she visited her husband in the hospital over a six months period, “I just saw so many cops and firefighters being treated for blood cancers.”

The research involved 9,853 firefighters overall, and was carried out by researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center, both in the Bronx, and the bureau of health services for the Fire Department of the City of New York.

50,000 Exposed

Over 50,000 people, including firefighters, police and construction workers, were exposed to chemicals at the site while working to rescue survivors, recover the dead and clean the site or surrounding buildings, wrote James Melius, an administrator for the New York State Laborers’ Health Fund, in an accompanying editorial. Few people had the intense and lengthy exposure of firefighters, he wrote.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future to these people, whether there might be a delayed onset of disease such as cancer,” Melius said in a telephone interview.

The study looked at the diagnoses and deaths of firefighters through Sept. 11, 2008, a period that included 27 cancer deaths, said David Prezant, a study author and the chief medical officer of the Fire Department of New York City, in a conference call with reporters.

Responders Compensation

On Jan. 2, President Barack Obama signed legislation to help rescuers, cleanup crews and other people suffering from ailments linked to the World Trade Center wreckage. As yet, there isn’t any compensation for firefighters who get cancer because of toxic exposure, Melius said.

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn blocked the legislation in December 2010, citing cost concerns. He and other Senate Republicans dropped their opposition to the bill when it was cut to $4.3 billion from the initial $6.2 billion, and was scheduled to close in 2016 instead of 2031.

Slower-growing cancers like mesothelioma may not be evident by then, Melius said. “The federal government needs to seriously consider adding cancer to the list of covered conditions,” he said.

Cancer can take a big financial toll on families because those who become sick, and often their family caregivers, can’t work and treatment is expensive, he said.

Fred Blosser, a spokesman for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said the agency will conduct a second review in “early- to mid-2012.”

Second Review

“We will incorporate new peer-reviewed studies in that review, including the Lancet article,” Blosser said in a telephone interview. If there’s enough evidence to suggest a cancer link, firefighters and other first responders can get treatment at no charge to them, he said.

There were up to 38 excess cases of cancer in the 7 year follow-up of the firefighters, the study’s authors reported. Longer studies will be needed to continue to assess firefighters’ risk, the department’s Prezant said.

The study excluded firefighters who were older than 60 on Sept. 11, and anyone with a previous diagnosis of cancer. No specific association for any type of cancer was found.

The chemicals that the firefighters were exposed to, including asbestos, biphenyls and dioxins, are known to cause blood cancers and mesothelioma, so doctors will continue to monitor for those illnesses, Prezant said in a conference call.

“Although we found an increase in all cancers in firefighters, and we can only comment on them since their exposure is unique, it’s not an epidemic,” Prezant said. “The most important thing to do is enroll in active cancer prevention and screening programs, which we have as part of our medical monitoring program.”

The Wiebicke Family

Randy Wiebicke was a lieutenant at Ladder 1. When he got sick, Wiebicke, a real estate agent and mother of three, said she was shuttled to and from appointments by other firefighters, she said. She’s received no financial aid, even though her husband’s death was considered by the fire department to be incurred in the line-of-duty, she said.

“There are lots of medical bills out there,” she said. “He was in the hospital for 4 months at the end.”

--With reporting by Henry Goldman in New York, and Jonathan D. Salant and James Rowley in Washington. Editors: Angela Zimm, Reg Gale.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in New York at elopatto@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net.


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