KSJ Tracker September 11, 2012

Sept. 11 health program expanded to cover 50 kinds of cancer in first responders

Surely we all welcome more help for the men and women who dropped everything and risked their safety and health to rush to the World Trade Center 11 years ago today to begin the unspeakably sad process of sorting through the smouldering wreckage, hunting for anyone who might have survived.

Yesterday, the administrator of the $4.3 billion federal World Trade Center Health program that was set up for those responders said that 50 cancers will be added to the list of illnesses covered by the program.

While this is commendable in many respects, and surely a comfort to those at risk and their families, we might ask whether there is any evidence linking an elevated cancer risk to working at the World Trade Center in the days and weeks after its collapse. 

The New York Times, in a brief post by Anemona Hartocollis on its City Room blog, notes that the decision to add the cancers to the list of diseases eligible for coverage "is based on a New York Fire Department study linking exposure at ground zero to cancer among firefighters, and on the recommendations of an advisory committee that found that the conflagration had released known or suspected carcinogens." The Times also quoted New York's two senators saying that two more peer reviewed studies are forthcoming, and they could lead to the addition of more cancers to the list.

That's about all the story said; you could argue that the story deserved more coverage. But in the short piece the Times did, it addressed the scientific questions in a reasonable way.

The Associated Press handled things quite differently, questioning whether there was any evidence that toxic exposures at Ground Zero could have caused cancer:

While stories about first responders struck by cancer are common, there is still little scientific evidence of elevated cancer rates connected to World Trade Center dust or other toxins at the ground zero recovery site in lower Manhattan. Scientists say there is little research to prove that exposure to the toxic dust plume caused even one kind of cancer.

I'm ready to believe that, but where's the attribution? In the version of the AP story that I read at the Boston Globe, I didn't see anything to back that up. True, or not? We can't tell.

CNN took yet another approach on its website, telling the personal story of a first responder who was afflicted with cancer and who, despite having insurance, had to drain his savings to pay for things that were not covered. He is now in remission. It's a moving story, but I searched in vain for CNN's effort to report any evidence that his cancer was caused by the exposure. CNN quoted one source to the effect that it's long past time for cancers to be added to the list. The source? The unfortunate man who got cancer.

I turned to a couple of news organizations that I thought might have put a science writer on this story. NPR and The Wall Street Journal both ran the AP story. I couldn't find anything at the Scientific American blog network or at Forbes. 

The AP's David B. Caruso and Mike Stobbe did look at the issue at some length in a nice piece in June. I wish today's AP story had referred back to some of what was reported there--with attribution. 

Other science or medical writers might have looked at this yesterday when the news broke about the addition of the 50 cancers. And if they did, I hope they will let me know. For those who didn't, there is still time...

-Paul Raeburn


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