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Researchers found less lung cancer than expected -- only 9 cases instead of the 21 they expected to see. That's reassuring because people are concerned about inhaled dust particles. All 9 of the cases involved smokers.
Conversely, they found 12 cases of thyroid cancer in the study group, compared to the 6 they might have expected based on rates in the general public.
Dr. James M. Melius, director of the New York State Laborers' Health Fund and one of the leading advocates for ground zero workers suffering health problems, said that even though the cancer research on firefighters was inconclusive, it showed enough possibility of a risk that U.S. officials should consider adding cancers to a list of conditions covered by a multi-billion dollar health aid bill passed by Congress last year.
Doing so would qualify exposed people for sizeable compensation payments.
"Are we going to wait until we have definitive evidence, which could be 20 or 30 years? Are we going to say, decades from now, `Yeah, you did get cancer because of the World Trade Center, and we should have helped you out back then?'" he said. "It's limited information. It isn't a perfect study ... It still provides compelling evidence that we should be providing at least health care for these people."
Experts said both the mortality study and the cancer study are limited, in part because of the difficulty of finding a proper comparison group. Drawing conclusions can also be difficult because researchers don't know the full medical history of the subjects.
Dr. Michael Thun, vice president emeritus of epidemiological research for the American Cancer Society, said it isn't surprising that the study would fail to detect any major trends so soon after attacks.
Typically, the types of cell mutations caused by toxic and carcinogenic exposures take decades to develop into a diagnosable cancer, he said.
Outside of cancers in children, he said, "You can't really go from the earliest stage to lethal in just a few years."
But it is possible that a cancer that already existed might have been accelerated by something in the dust, and on that point, "the results are neither conclusively negative, or conclusively positive," Thun said.
He called the fire department research "a solid first study on the issue," but said it will likely be another decade before scientists can really see whether people exposed to trade center toxins have an increased risk of getting cancer.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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