Death by Dust

The frightening link between the 9-11 toxic cloud and cancer

It was October 6, 2004, three years after Ernie Vallebuona's three-month stint as a rescue and recovery worker at ground zero in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and he was hunched over and trembling, racked by a pain like nothing he had experienced in his 40 years of sound health. He had just returned to his Rockland County home after finishing the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift in the NYPD vice unit, where he'd reported to work for the last six years. Vallebuona had bought some fish from a street vendor near his office, on the Lower East Side. And as he drove the 35 miles from Manhattan to New City, he chalked up a searing stomachache to food poisoning. Maybe the vendor had filleted that fish with a dirty machete?

By the time he pulled into his driveway, the pain had grown excruciating, too horrible for him to even lie in bed that day. The chills swept over his body; so did the shakes. He called his doctor, who suggested ulcer medication. His mother advised him to forget that diagnosis and consult a specialist instead, but like a lot of young, healthy men, he didn't listen right away.

Vallebuona isn't much for complaining; what ailing cop is? But for six months, he had noticed his body betraying him. His toes had reddened; his joints had stiffened. They throbbed in prickly pangs, as if glass shards were wedged underneath his skin. When his own heartbeat began to hurt, he had visited the family doctor, who diagnosed him with gout. He was told to drink cherry juice and take anti-inflammatory medicine. Neither worked.

To date, 75 recovery workers at ground zero have been diagnosed with blood cell cancers that a half-dozen top doctors and epidemiologists have confirmed as having been likely caused by that exposure. Ernie Vallabuona is one of them.
photo: Scott McDermott
To date, 75 recovery workers at ground zero have been diagnosed with blood cell cancers that a half-dozen top doctors and epidemiologists have confirmed as having been likely caused by that exposure. Ernie Vallabuona is one of them.

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Now as his stomach convulsed, Vallebuona listened to his mother at last. Later that day, he found himself at a gastroenterologist's office in Pomona, lying on a table, watching a nurse poke at his abdomen. She felt a lump and ordered tests. It would take a month to reach a definitive diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphoid tissue. Evidently, Vallebuona had developed a golf-ball-sized mass in his abdomen that had grown so fast and so quick that pieces of it were dying and depositing into his blood, causing gout-like symptoms.

One week after that, he was at a Manhattan hospital, meeting his oncologist, hearing about the heavy-duty chemotherapy he would have to undergo over the next four months. At the visit, a nurse explained he had an aggressive cancer—a rare stage-three—and asked a battery of questions.

Did he ever do modeling with glue?
Did he ever handle insecticides?
Did he ever work with chemicals like benzene?

Vallebuona answered no to all the questions. He had led a clean life; before becoming a cop, he'd worked in a bank.

Sitting in the examining room with him, Vallebuona's wife, Amy, finally spoke up.

"What about 9-11?" she asked. "What about all that smoke and dust?"

Only then did Ernie Vallebuona first consider the possibility that the events of September 11 could be the cause of his cancer.


This is not the story of rescue and recovery workers at ground zero getting sick with respiratory illnesses from their exposure; you have read those stories, and you have heard those cases.

This is the story of 9-11 and cancer.

To date, 75 recovery workers on or around what is now known as "the Pile"—the rubble that remained after the World Trade Center towers collapsed on the morning of September 11, 2001—have been diagnosed with blood cell cancers that a half-dozen top doctors and epidemiologists have confirmed as having been likely caused by that exposure.

Those 75 cases have come to light in joint-action lawsuits filed against New York City on behalf of at least 8,500 recovery workers who suffer from various forms of lung illnesses and respiratory diseases—and suggest a pattern too distinct to ignore. While some cancers take years, if not decades, to develop, the blood cancers in otherwise healthy and young individuals represent a pattern that experts believe will likely prove to be more than circumstantial. The suits seek to prove that these 8,500 workers—approximately 20 percent of the total estimated recovery force that cleared the rubble from ground zero—all suffer from the debilitating effects of those events.

The basis for the suits stems from the plaintiffs' argument that the government—in a desperate attempt to revive downtown in the wake of the catastrophic events on 9-11—failed to protect workers from cancer-causing benzene, dioxin, and other hazardous chemicals that permeated the air for months. Officials made these failures worse by falsely reassuring New Yorkers that they faced no long-term dangers from exposure to the air lingering over ground zero.

"We are very encouraged that the results from our monitoring of air-quality and drinking-water conditions in both New York and near the Pentagon show that the public in these areas is not being exposed to excessive levels of asbestos or other harmful substances," Christine Todd Whitman, the then administrator of the EPA, told the citizens of New York City in a press release on September 18—only seven days after the attacks. "Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York . . . that their air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink."

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