How the 9/11 Attacks Affected Cancer Prevalence

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On September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City, leading to nearly 3,000 deaths. In the weeks and months following the attacks, thousands of first responders and recovery workers put their own physical and mental health at risk by reporting to Ground Zero to aid in the recovery efforts.

This article discusses the health effects for the people involved in the rescue effort, including the most common cancers in people who were exposed.

Most Prevalent Types of Cancer in 9/11 Responders

Verywell / Mayya Agapova

9/11 Health Effects

From September 2001 to May 2002, more than 91,000 first responders were exposed to harmful toxins that the World Trade Center (WTC) attack left behind. Those involved in the recovery efforts experienced both physical and mental health effects.

One study that looked at health effects in rescue and recovery workers and community members exposed at the WTC found that nearly half reported developing one or more health conditions after 9/11.

The World Trade Center Health Program was created following the 9/11 attacks. The program offers medical treatment and monitoring at no cost for certified 9/11-related health conditions to those directly affected by the attacks in New York, the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., and at the crash site of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Data collected from the WTC Health Program helps to identify health conditions and inform ongoing monitoring and treatment needs of the affected population. A few of the health effects will be discussed in this article.

Toxic Dust

The collapse of the high-rise buildings known as the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center created a toxic dust, sometimes referred to as WTC dust, that spanned Lower Manhattan. It was made up of a mixture of crushed concrete, gypsum, and synthetic vitreous fibers. When inhaled, these substances can disrupt the airway and digestive system.

PTSD

Response and recovery efforts had an impact on mental health as well.

In some people, it led to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition of intense emotional and physical reactions that can develop after experiencing a traumatic event. A 2020 study found that 9.5% of first responders reported PTSD symptoms following the events of 9/11.

Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle changes developed in those who experienced 9/11 firsthand as well, including increased smoking and drinking.

In the five to eight weeks following the attacks, a group of researchers surveyed Manhattan residents about their cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana consumption. They found that 28.8% of people reported an increase in use among these three substances.

Higher Cancer Rates

Since the tragic events on 9/11, researchers have continued to study the prevalence of cancer among people who were exposed to toxic chemicals at Ground Zero. Analysis of data from the WTC Health Program General Responder Cohort found an increase in every type of cancer.

Although the occurrence of cancer is higher in WTC-exposed responders, their risk of death from these cancers is lower than the general population. A study published in 2021 that evaluated individuals enrolled in the WTC Health Program suggests that ongoing monitoring and no-cost treatment has had a significant impact on health outcomes for this population.

The most prevalent types of cancer in 9/11 first responders include:

Prostate Cancer

Prostate cancer is a cancer that occurs in a gland of the reproductive system in men. Compared to the general public, 9/11 first responders are 25% more likely to develop prostate cancer.

One group of researchers looked at prostate cancer in WTC first responders. They reasoned that the WTC dust might affect the gene expression (instructions in your DNA to make certain cells and proteins) of an exposed person, leading to an increased risk for developing this disease.

The cause of prostate cancer remains largely unknown, but the data provided by the WTC Health Program are helping scientists gain a better understanding of the disease.

Leukemia

Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood.

The risk of leukemia increased by 41% among first responders following 9/11. One study found that factors such as age, sex, and current smoking status all increased the individuals' chances of developing leukemia among this population.

Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer affects the thyroid, a gland responsible for hormone regulation.

The risk of developing thyroid cancer was found to be more than twice as high in 9/11 first responders than in the general population.

Underlying Factors for Thyroid Cancer

Many participants in the WTC Health Program were predisposed to thyroid cancer, given occupational exposures prior to 9/11, as well as family histories of thyroid cancer. Experts suggest that the rate of thyroid cancer in 9/11 first responders could be higher than expected because of these underlying factors.

Lung Cancer

First responders have an increased risk for developing lung diseases, including lung cancer. This is due to their regular exposure to smoke, dust, and environmental toxins.

Following 9/11, researchers predicted that the rate of lung cancer among first responders would rise more than it would in the general population. However, in a study published nearly two decades later, they found that this was not the case.

Based on the data collected, lung cancer in this population followed similar trends as those in the general population. One explanation for the lower-than-expected rates of lung cancer among this population is a longer latency period—the  time that passes between exposure and symptoms—in this type of cancer.

Smoking and Lung Cancer

Because smoking is a significant risk factor for lung cancer, a first responder's risk for lung cancer is higher if they also smoke.

Prevention

The World Trade Center Health Program's work has helped with early detection of WTC-related health conditions.

However, some experts argue that public health agencies involved in the 9/11 response were ill-prepared to address just how significant the risks of 9/11 recovery efforts were, to determine methods for monitoring long-term exposures, and to offer resources to minimize exposure during recovery efforts.

Summary

Decades after the 9/11 attacks, researchers continue to uncover health conditions associated with World Trade Center (WTC) recovery exposure. These conditions include prostate cancer, thyroid cancer, leukemia, and lung cancer. It's important to note that the latency period can be up to 40 years. This is significant for 9/11 first responders who may be at risk but have not identified any adverse health effects yet. In those cases, regular cancer screenings can save lives.

A Word From Verywell

9/11 first responders deserve our immense gratitude for their recovery work following the attacks, especially given the serious health conditions they were exposed to. They selflessly put their own health at risk for the greater good. In addition to the trauma of the recovery effort, getting a cancer diagnosis as a result can be scary. Early detection is crucial to prognosis, so first responders should make efforts to have regular cancer screenings.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Did 9/11 responders see increased lung cancer rates after the attack?

    First responders were at risk for lung cancer following 9/11. However, the rates of lung cancer are similar to those of the general population. The latency period for lung cancer could affect these rates. Monitoring is ongoing.

11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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