Blood samples from first responders at Ground Zero were more likely to show cancer-associated mutations than those from comparable personnel who didn't work at the pile in the 9/11 aftermath, according to a new study.
Researchers with the study found a similar pattern when they tested two sets of mice: one exposed to Ground Zero toxins, such as aerosolized dust, gasses and potential carcinogens, and another set that hadn’t been exposed.
Like the first responders, the blood of exposed mice had the mutations at a higher rate, according to the study, published March 7 in the journal Nature Medicine.
The researchers showed that the mutations were related to exposure at Ground Zero, said Dr. Joanna Rhodes, a hematologist and oncologist with Northwell Health in New Hyde Park.
"They took what is all of the chemicals that are considered part of the World Trade Center exposure and then they exposed mice to them and were able to show, basically, the same pattern of Clonal hematopoiesis" — the acquisition of certain mutations in blood cells that is associated with smoking, other toxin exposure, and age.
What to know
Blood samples from Ground Zero first responders were more likely to show cancer-associated mutations than those from comparable personnel who didn't work at the pile.
The samples were collected between December 2013 and October 2015 from FDNY personnel, as well as from medics with the city’s emergency medical service.
The chances of cancer mutations were 10% for firefighters and others exposed at Ground Zero compared to 6.7% in a control group.
John Feal, of Nesconset, who lost half of his left foot after working to clear rubble from Ground Zero and has since become an advocate for other first responders, said there were about 90,000 to 110,000 people who worked on the Ground Zero pile or in the surrounding area in a support capacity, in the 10 months following the attacks. Another 410,000 either worked, lived or went to school in lower Manhattan, he said.
The mutations tend to develop as one ages, but the blood samples taken from the World Trade Center responders showed higher rates of development than would be expected from normal aging, according to the study.
Rhodes said that while the mutations are associated with blood cancer as well as heart disease, the presence of the mutations doesn’t necessarily mean a person will develop these ailments, only that there is a greater risk.
The blood samples were collected between December 2013 and October 2015 from FDNY personnel, as well as from medics with the city’s emergency medical service. Firefighters from Nashville, Tennessee, and others, who were not exposed to Ground Zero toxins, served as the control group.
The chances of the mutations were 10% for firefighters and others exposed at Ground Zero compared to 6.7% in the control group.
Research data about "WTC-exposed first responders provides a rationale for enhanced screening and preventive efforts in this population," the study said.
Told of the study, Feal, of the eponymous FealGood Foundation, said it confirmed what he and others always knew.
"We said this back in early 2003 and 4, when we started walking the halls of Congress, that we were sick and had cancer, and we were dying," he said. "Science has caught up to us, and many of us look like we’re smarter than we really are."
So many people have died from 9/11-related ailments, contracted from the rubble’s toxins, that the number surpasses the death toll from the day of the terrorist attack itself, Feal said.
As first responders age, he said, their immune systems are less able to fight off 9/11-related ailments contracted decades early.
"We’re 20 years removed from 9/11, and the first 20 years were horrific: So many people died," he said, adding: "But the next 20 years are going to be devastating, and it’s gonna make the first 20 years look like a walk in the park."