Cancer in firefighters linked to ground zero exposure
Rory Molleda and Millie Carter
September 15, 2011
Filed under Archives
The whole world became Americans on that dreadful morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Everyone remembers where they were when they found out the first tower had fallen. However, today’s concern is for the brave men and women who first responded to the attacks.
The horrific events that occurred on Sept. 11 have been on the minds of our entire nation this week. What many do not focus on is the underlying issue associated with the cleanup of the World Trade Center.
During the cleanup effort following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, firefighters were exposed to toxic combustion by-product as well as a mix of asbestos, cement dust, and pulverized building materials for days, weeks, and months. These professionals at the WTC site were exposed without proper respiratory and personal protection, according to ABC News.
With over 35 years of experience in worker health and safety, Rich Duffy, Assistant to the General President for Occupational Health, Safety and Medicine, and member of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), gives us an inside look on the issue.
“The profession of firefighting is and has always been a very hazardous occupation,” said Rich Duffy in an email correspondence. “Occupational diseases such as heart disease and cancer constitute more than 90 percent of all reported firefighter disease deaths when their occurrences are combined.”
Firefighters are exposed to all types of hazardous environments associated with their jobs, and no single health risk can be pinpointed as the most “common” threat. However, recent studies directly associate health risks of exposure to the WTC cleanup effort. These studies point to one controversial link among the many firefighters on the cleanup site: cancer.
The FDNY World Trade Center Study shows an increase of cancer in firefighters and officers who were exposed to the toxic mix of chemicals and other carcinogens found at the WTC site.
“The study clearly shows that World Trade Center exposure in these firefighters led to an increase in all types of cancer,” said David Prezant, Fire Department City of New York chief medical officer, to the Huffington Post. “But this is not an epidemic — thank God.”
During the initial cleanup when the most toxic dust “cloud” was present, firefighters wore little respiratory protection because there was none available, reported ABC News.
“As the recovery stage continued over many months, APRs (Air Purifying Respirators) and filtering face piece respirators were worn and changes were made in work uniforms to lessen stress and heat impacts,” said Duffy.
Duffy explained that the health impacts found by the FDNY World Trade Center Study could be due in part to the lack of protection.
“I personally don’t believe many jurisdictions have the capability to initiate a full respiratory protection program during a mass casualty incident such as the one we experienced on September 11,” he said.
Madeline Wiebicke, the wife of a firefighter who recently died of multiple myeloma, confirmed the lack of protection under which her husband worked on the site and expressed her beliefs that this exposure had a role in his death.
“My husband’s firehouse was right there, and they were down there for days at the beginning,” said Wiebicke, 51. “In the beginning, they didn’t even have masks.”
Following studies confirming that there was an increase of health problems among the first responders, the focus turned to medical treatment of those affected.
“We have worked directly with our local (station) as well as the FDNY’s Medical Division and the Counseling Service Unit to address member’s health outcomes,” said Duffy.
Among these initiatives is the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010, which established a federally funded World Trade Center Health Program, designed to respond and treat adverse health effects associated with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. The program went into effect July 1, 2011 and has been funded under the act for five years.
According to The Washington Post, the act established requirements for enrollment, appeals, certification of health conditions, and reimbursement for the firefighters involved in the cleanup. Contracts were also established with data centers, which will continue to receive, analyze and report on the data they collect, regarding the health impacts on firefighters.
This act extends to emergency responders who were involved at the Shanksville and Pentagon sites, as well, Duffy explained.
The act, however, does not yet include cancer treatment as one of the benefits the act offers to responders, since July, when a review of the limited evidence led John Howard of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to initially exclude cancer from the conditions covered, The Huffington Post reports.
“The IAFF believes that there is a continued need for expanded research as well as continued fire fighter cancer screening and prevention strategies,” said Duffy. “It must be pointed out and stressed that the medical monitoring and medical intervention of FDNY members by FDNY’s Medical Division were a direct result of FDNY and IAFF Locals 94 and 854 and their involvement in the IAFF/IAFC Joint Labor Management Wellness/Fitness Initiative (WFI).”