From the Journals

World Trade Center responders face greater cancer burden, including greater risk of multiple myeloma

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World Trade Center exposure and myeloma – correlation or causation?

When the heroes of the World Trade Center are diagnosed with even a common cancer, there is a natural tendency to assume that the diagnosis is the result of their service during the disaster. However, it is important to appreciate that the firefighting profession is known to be associated with higher risks of monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance and multiple myelomas, compared with the general population.

Given that, it would have been preferable to compare the World Trade Center–exposed populations with an equally intensively screened, age-matched cohort of firefighters from another major city.

If we apply Sir Richard Doll’s rule that a single epidemiologic study cannot be persuasive until the lower bound of the 95% confidence interval is greater than three, the relative risks in the study by Landgren and colleagues are too small to be persuasive.

The predicted increases in cancers of the prostate, thyroid, and myeloma are interesting, but these have also been previously reported in firefighters from other cities.

Despite this, we owe it to these men and women to find the truth and determine the illnesses that are associated with their service.

Otis W. Brawley, MD, is chief medical and scientific officer and executive vice president of the American Cancer Society and a professor at Emory University, Atlanta. These comments are taken from an accompanying editorial (JAMA Oncology. 2018 April 26. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2018.0498.) No conflicts of interest were declared.



Rescue and recovery workers who were involved in the aftermath of the World Trade Center disaster may face a greater cancer burden than the general population, according to two studies published in JAMA Oncology.

In particular, they may be at risk of developing multiple myeloma at an earlier age.

The first study was a closed-cohort study of 14,474 employees of the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) who were exposed to the World Trade Center disaster but were cancer-free as of Jan. 1, 2012. The aim was to project cancer incidence from 2012 through 2031, based on data from the FDNY World Trade Center Health Program, and compare those rates with age-, race-, and sex-specific New York cancer rates from the general population.

The modeling projected a “modestly” higher number of cancer cases in the white male subgroup of rescue and recovery workers exposed to the World Trade Center (2,714 vs. 2,596 for the general population of New York; P less than .001). Specifically, the investigators projected significantly higher case counts of prostate cancer (1,437 vs. 863), thyroid cancer (73 vs. 57), and melanoma (201 vs. 131), compared with the general population in New York, but fewer lung (237 vs. 373), colorectal (172 vs. 267), and kidney cancers (66 vs. 132) (P less than .001 for all).

“Our findings suggest that the FDNY WTC-exposed cohort may experience a greater burden of cancer than would be expected from a population with similar demographic characteristics,” wrote Rachel Zeig-Owens, DrPH, from the Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, both in New York, and coauthors, highlighting prostate cancer as a particular concern.

However, they also acknowledged that the elevated rates observed in people exposed to the World Trade Center disaster could be a result of increased surveillance, even though they did attempt to correct for that, and that firefighters in general might face higher risks.

“It is possible that firefighters have a higher risk of cancer than the general population owing to exposures associated with the occupation,” they wrote. However occupation could also have the opposite effect, as rescue and recovery workers tend to have lower smoking rates, which may explain the relatively low rates of certain cancers such as lung cancer, they said.


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