Link-a-lot, right and left


The right-wing of American politics, with its religious enthusiams, has long shown a willingness to ignore and subvert science to advance its policy agendas. The left wing of American politics, however, is not immune from ignoring evidence-based scientific conclusions in its policy agenda. When it comes to World-Trade Center (WTC) attack, the hostility to evidence-based conclusions appears to be bipartisan.

The attack on the WTC by evil Muslim religious extremists was deplorable, and the September 11th rescue workers deserve our respect and gratitude. They may even deserve compensation for fortuitous, un-related chronic diseases experienced a decade or so later. Dressing up our gratitude in the language of causality and victimhood, however, undermines basic respect for scientific evidence and leads to specious claiming.

The New York Times, no slouch when it comes to specious claiming on scientific issues, provided a great example with its editorial this morning, advocating for increased federal funding for the WTC compensation fund. Editorial Board, “Give Sept. 11 Survivors the Help They Deserve: A fund to aid the thousands sickened from the toxic dust of the World Trade Center attack is running out of money,” N.Y. Times (Feb. 28, 2019). The Times’ editors pictured a retired federal worker as one “who suffers from illnesses like leukemia related to recovery work at ground zero.” The editorial tells us that this man, in 2015, “was told he had leukemia linked to his work there, “like many who had been at the site.” The editors went on to bemoan how this man, and others like him, might receive much less than what had been promised by the federal WTC compensation fund.

The passive voice can be very revealing for the deception and misrepresentations it hides. Who told this man such a thing, about a “link,” whatever that is? And on what evidence was the “link” supposedly established?

Of course, there were toxic materials disseminated by the Muslim terrorist attack, and scientists have studied health outcomes among both the rescue workers and responders, as well as among civilians who joined the effort to look for survivors and victims. One study that was published shortly after the 10-year anniversary of the WTC attack, failed to show any “link” between respiratory or physical exposure to WTC dusts and materials and leukemia.1 In the authors’ words, “”Using within-cohort comparisons, the intensity of World Trade Center exposure was not significantly associated with cancer of the lung, prostate, thyroid, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, or hematological cancer in either group.”

Table 3 of their paper reported specifically on leukemia, using standardized incidence ratios (SIR), in two time windows:

Early Period (with enrollment through 2006, n = 21,218.

SIR 0.73 (95% C.I., 0.20 to 1.87)

and

Later Period (enrollment 2007-2008, n = 20,991)

SIR = 1.25 (95% C.I., 0.46 to 2.72)

A later paper by many of the same authors updated the cohort through 2011. Again, the results overall were equivocal in terms of standardized incidence ratios, but quite “null” for leukemia:

“RESULTS: All-cancer SIR was 1.11 (95% confidence interval (CI) 1.03-1.20) in RRWs, and 1.08 (95% CI 1.02-1.15) in non-RRWs. Prostate cancer and skin melanoma were significantly elevated in both populations. Thyroid cancer was significantly elevated only in RRWs [rescue workers] while breast cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma were significantly elevated only in non-RRWs. There was a significant exposure dose-response for bladder cancer among RRWs, and for skin melanoma among non-RRWs [civilians].”2

Table II of this later report provides the evidence that the New York Times’ anonymous “linker” was mostly likely full of soup:

Rescue/recovery workers (RRW) (N=24,863)

Leukemia: 16 observed; 17 expected

SIR = 0.95 (95% C.I., 0.54 – 1.54)

Enrollees not involved in rescue and recovery (non-RRW) (N = 35,476)

Leukemia: 18 observed, 22 expected

SIR = 0.81 (95% C.I., 0.48 – 1.29)

An article reporting on the results of multiple cohorts in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine (“red journal”) makes clear that causal conclusions or “linking” is not appropriate on the available evidence:

Conclusions. The presence of three cohorts strengthens the effort of identifying and quantifying the cancer risk; the heterogeneity in design might increase sensitivity to the identification of cancers potentially associated with exposure. The presence and magnitude of an increased cancer risk remains to be fully elucidated. Continued long-term follow up with minimal longitudinal dropout is crucial to achieve this goal.”3

These authors’ point about continued, long-term follow up is of course true, but immaterial to the validity of the present compensation schemes. The evidence for the relevant time window has been collected and analyzed. Whether compensation for longer latency period manifestations of chronic disease is appropriate is a separate issue. There is just no link in the New York Times’ linking. Evidence-based policy needs evidence, not editorial opinion.

1Jiehui Li, James E. Cone, Amy R. Kahn, Robert M. Brackbill, Mark R. Farfel, Carolyn M. Greene, James L. Hadler,Leslie T. Stayner, and Steven D. Stellman, “Association between World Trade Center exposure and excess cancer risk,” 308 J. Am. Med. Ass’n 2479 (2012).

2Mark R. Farfel, James L. Hadler, Amy R. Kahn, Kevin J. Konty, Leslie T. Stayner, and Steven D. Stellman, “Ten-year cancer incidence in rescue/recovery workers and civilians exposed to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center,” 59 Am. J. Indus. Med. 709 (2016).

3Paolo Boffetta, Rachel Zeig-Owens, Sylvan Wallenstein, Jiehui Li, Robert Brackbill, James Cone, Mark Farfel, William Holden, Roberto Lucchini, Mayris P. Webber, David Prezant, and Steven D. Stellman, “Cancer in World Trade Center responders: Findings from multiple cohorts and options for future study,” 59 Am. J. Indus. Med. 96, 96 (2016) (emphasis added).

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