Sept. 1, 2011 -- For many of the nearly 50,000 9/11 first responders, the wounds of the Twin Tower attacks are far from healing. According to two studies published Thursday in the British journal Lancet, these rescue workers continue to struggle with respiratory illness, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and many of them may be at increased risk for developing a number of cancers.
In the months following 9/11, firefighter Kenny Specht, 43, spent every day at the site, navigating the rubble in hopes of at first rescuing people, and later recovering the bodies of those crushed when the towers fell. Though he and his fellow rescue workers were picking through rubble littered with asbestos, mercury, crushed florescent light bulbs and other known toxins, they were outfitted with only their normal uniform to protect them from potential contaminants.
"They gave us paper masks and overalls, like you'd see in home improvement shows. They let us go back to our homes every day with our contaminated gear," Specht says.
It wasn't until 2006 that he started to experience health problems. At first it was gastrointestinal issues that required him to have his gallbladder removed, but in 2007 a CAT scan following an injury on the job revealed thyroid cancer.
"The injury to my neck was fortunate, because I didn't have any symptoms of cancer yet, so I wouldn't have known," he says. Specht had his thyroid removed and went through radiation and now has to take medications for the rest of his life to replace the function of his thyroid.
"The optimist in me wants to believe this is my only bout with cancer, but the realist in me knows it's hard to ever say you're cancer-free after you've had cancer," he says.
Though the string of cancer cases among New York firefighters who worked at 9/11 seemed like a sad coincidence when Specht was diagnosed, this Levittown, N.Y., man is now part of a trend that researchers are just beginning to understand: Those who worked at the WTC site seem to be at increased risk of cancer, especially thyroid cancer, melanoma and lymphoma. According to a study released of nearly 10,000 New York firefighters (half of whom worked at the WTC site), those from the site are 32 percent more likely to have cancer.
"I've been to 54 funerals of firefighters since 9/11 and 52 of them are cancer-related," says John Feal, a former firefighter and founder of the FealGood Foundation, an advocacy group seeking medical coverage and compensation for first responders of 9/11.
Tracking First Responder Health Ten Years Out
The collapse of the Twin Towers contaminated the nearby air with particles of glass, asbestos, cement, lead and other toxins. It is thought that exposure to this dust through the lungs and skin has contributed to the asthma, gastrointestinal problems, and possibly the increased cancer risk experienced by rescue workers, especially those who were on the site immediately after the attack, when the cloud of debris dust was its thickest.
Assessing Health Risks in 9/11 Workers
"Because those responding in the first hours were stuck in the dust cloud, these were the people with the highest rate of every disease we tracked," says Dr. Philip Landrigan, Dean of Global Health at Mount Sinai School of medicine and senior researcher of one of Thursday's studies. The study, which looked at medical and mental health outcomes for about 30,000 rescue workers involved in 9/11 aid work, found that nearly a third of these workers have developed asthma and between 10 and 30 percent still suffer from persistent medical disorders, including gastro-esophageal reflux, depression and PTSD, even nine years after they were exposed to the WTC site.
Though researchers expected to see some persistence in medical and mental health symptoms for these workers, Landrigan says the extent to which they are still suffering was an "unwelcome surprise."
"We're still seeing 75 to 100 new patients each month, even after all these years," he says. Landrigan urges those who worked at the WTC to seek examination at one of New York City's WTC Centers for Excellence -- hospitals that provide specialized testing and treatment for those with physical and mental health conditions associated with 9/11.
Thanks to the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, signed into law by President Obama in January, rescue workers can receive financial assistance for health problems such as those identified in Landrigan's study. At this time, however, the act does not cover cancer, as a federal analysis decided there was not enough evidence to say that 9/11 work contributed to cancer risk at that time.
Feal and other 9/11 workers' advocates hope that the results of Thursday's New York firefighter's study will convince policymakers to reverse that decision and provide funding for medical bills and compensation to those rescue workers suffering from cancer post 9/11.
"We can't take away the exposure [to carcinogens] on 9/11, but cancer prevention and cancer screening is a must," says David Prezant, co-author on the firefighter study and chief medical officer of the New York City Fire Department. "This study is a wake up call."
"Because cancer usually takes many year to develop, it may be too soon to confirm that these cancers are due to WTC exposure," says Dr. Richard Besser, senior health and medical editor at ABC News. "It isn't too soon to ensure that early screening is in place and that cancer prevention efforts are in full force."