Bipartisan Junk Science – Pork-Barrel Causation

Despite the hand waving and finger pointing, junk science is embraced by both political parties in the United States, when it suits their purposes.  Both parties want to have God and science on their sides.

Congress created September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, 49 USC § 40101, also known as the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act (P.L. 111-347) (signed into law in January 2011). The Act was a touching acknowledgement of the dedication and sacrifices of first responders to the World Trade Center and Pentagon victims of an Islamic jihad. Being a victim, however, implies that the harm to be compensated was caused by the attack and its consequences.  The New York politicians soon learned that causality can be turned into a very malleable concept.

The law allocated over $4 billion for medical screening and treatment of fire fighters, policemen, emergency responders, and survivors.  Most of the covered conditions were acute onset respiratory and mental disorders caused by gases, fumes, dusts, and stresses, to which the workers were exposed.  The law also made the director of CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the head of a World Trade Center Health Program, which could add new conditions to the list of compensable diseases, based upon a review of scientific evidence.

In September 2011, several New York congressmen and Senators petitioned the director, citing flimsy or non-existent scientific evidence, to add cancer to the list.  Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Representatives Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Peter King (R-NY), Charles Rangel (D-NY), Nita Velazquez (D-NY), Michael Grimm (R-NY),  and Yvette Clark (D-NY), made their request, citing R. Zeig-Owens, M. Webber, C.B. Hall, et al., “Early assessment of cancer outcomes in New York City firefighters after the 9/11 attacks: an observational cohort study,” 378 Lancet 898 (2011).

This is pork barrel politics masquerading as sympathy for putative victims.  The Zeig-Owens study reported a non-statistically significant standardized incidence ratio for all cancer, of either 1.10 (95% CI 0.98–1.25), with a comparison group of the generalized U.S. male population, or 1.19 (95% CI 0.96–1.47), with unexposed firefighters as a comparison group, and corrected for possible surveillance bias.  Of course, given that there is no disease of cancer, the composite end point is not particularly meaningful.

Here are the authors’ (including Dr. Prezant’s) published interpretation of the data:

“We reported a modest excess of cancer cases in the WTC-exposed cohort. We remain cautious in our interpretation of this finding because the time since 9/11 is short for cancer outcomes, and the reported excess of cancers is not limited to specific organ types. As in any observational study, we cannot rule out the possibility that effects in the exposed group might be due to unidentified confounders.”

Zeig-Owens, at 898.  The Zeig-Owens study did not support any conclusions of causality between the workers’ exposures in 2001, and any type of cancer. See NIOSH Report Sets Up Run on September 11th Victim Compensation Fund by Non-Victims.

The WTC Health Program director requested recommendations from the program’s Scientific – Technical Advisory Committee (STAC), whether to add cancer generally, or any particular kind of cancer, to the Zadroga Act’s list of compensable conditions.  In April 2012, the STAC made its recommendations, essentially relying upon likely exposures, without any consideration of individual dose, duration, latency, and without any serious consideration of the available epidemiologic evidence.

The STAC claimed that the Lancet study reported statistically significant excesses of cancer; it did not. The Committee also failed to come to grips with the biological implausibility of excess rates of solid malignant tumors presenting within less than a decade since exposure:

“Given that cancer latencies for solid tumors average 20 years or more, it is noteworthy that the published FDNY study of fire fighters showed a statistically significant excess in all-site cancer with only 7 years of follow-up.”

In June 2012, NIOSH director, Dr. Howard, reported that he was inclined to accept the STAC’s recommendation, but held open a public comment period.  See Anemona Hartocollis, “Sept. 11 Health Fund Given Clearance to Cover Cancer,” N.Y. Times (June 8, 2012).  Not surprising, given the political pressure, the WTC Health Program director promulgated his final rule to include 50 types of cancer, including many that occurred less often than expected in the Zeig-Owens study.

This decision ignores appropriate scientific methodology for reaching causal conclusions.  Worse than its intellectual shabbiness, the decision insults the true victims of the jihad terrorism.

The rule is effective October 12, 2012.


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