NEW YORK – Two major medical studies have failed to find significant increases in deaths or cancer among people exposed to dust from the World Trade Center.
In one, researchers who studied cancer rates among nearly 9,000 firefighters who spent time at ground zero found four more cases of the disease than might normally be expected in a group of American men of the same age and ethnicity, an increase independent experts said was small enough to be caused by chance alone.
Fire Department doctors also compared exposed firefighters to a group of 926 colleagues who were never at the trade center, and had no contact with the dust. There, they found that cancer rates were about 19 percent higher in the exposed group, but, again, experts uninvolved in the study said the difference was not statistically significant.
Advocates for the firefighters said the trend was still worrisome, however, and doctors said they could not rule out the possibility that more cancer cases will develop among the firefighters as time goes on.
Dr. David Prezant, the fire department’s chief medical officer, said he believed the firefighters study indicated “a moderately strong correlation” between World Trade Center dust and cancer. He said he did not agree with other experts who said the study failed certain key tests of statistical significance.
In the other study, researchers with New York City’s health department who studied death rates among 42,000 people potentially exposed to trade center dust found no evidence of a spike in fatalities. In fact, they found that the 790 deaths among people in the study group was about 43 percent lower than the mortality rate for New Yorkers in general. They were also less likely to have suffered fatal respiratory ailments.
Those findings, however, were also written off by scientists as too premature to mean much. Because the attacks happened in a business district and presumably involved people who were fit enough to be reporting to work, the study group was probably healthier than the general public to begin with, said New York City’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley.
“I wouldn’t interpret it as that the World Trade Center has somehow helped people live longer,” he said. Also, the types of toxins released in the trade center disaster usually take decades to result in deaths, not the few years covered in the study, he and other experts said.
Donald Berry, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, said the two studies “provide no evidence that living or working in the former shadow of the World Trade Center increases one’s risk of anything.”
“Occupational hazards are real,” he said. “An extreme example is the plight of asbestos workers. But occupational risks accrue over years of exposure. With the exception of a nuclear explosion or meltdown, it’s difficult for any single event to cause an increase in cancer or in mortality.”
Both studies were being published today in The Lancet, a British medical journal.
Also set for publication in The Lancet today is a study of nearly 27,500 people enrolled in a World Trade Center health monitoring program that found that nearly 28 percent had asthma, 42 percent had sinus problems and 39 percent had acid reflux disease, a condition related to heartburn. The study also found large numbers of rescue and recovery workers suffering from depression or panic disorders. Those findings echo the results of several other studies.