Death by Dust

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

Those statements were not only false and misleading, but may even play into the basis for the city's liability for millions of dollars in the recovery workers' lawsuits. Last February, U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts cited Whitman's false statements as the basis for allowing a different class-action lawsuit to proceed—this one, against the EPA and Whitman, is on behalf of residents, office workers, and students from Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, many of whom suffer from respiratory illnesses as a result of 9-11.

"No reasonable person would have thought that telling thousands of people that it was safe to return to Lower Manhattan, while knowing that such return could pose long-term health risks and other dire consequences, was conduct sanctioned by our laws," Batts wrote in her February 2 ruling. "Whitman's deliberate and misleading statements made to the press, where she reassured the public that the air was safe to breathe around Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, and that there would be no health risk presented to those returning to the areas, shocks the conscience."

And that was before anyone knew of the apparent cancer link, first reported in the New York news media in the spring of 2004. Even more shocking is the incidence of cancer and other life-threatening illnesses that have developed among those participating in the recovery workers' lawsuits. Given the fact that some cancers are slower to develop than others, it seems likely to several doctors and epidemiologists that many more reports of cancer and serious lung illnesses will surface in the months and years to come. The fact that 8,500 recovery workers have already banded together to sue, only five years later—with 400 total cancer patients among their number—leads many experts to predict that these figures are likely to grow, meaning a possible death toll in the thousands.

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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In many ways, these illnesses suggest the slow but deteriorating health issues that faced the atomic-bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where thousands died in the years and decades that followed the United States' use of nuclear weapons. And that similarity has not been lost on David Worby, the 53-year-old attorney leading the joint-action suits on behalf of those workers who are already sick, and even dying.

"In the end," Worby declares, "our officials might be responsible for more deaths than Osama bin Laden on 9-11."

In the five years since the attacks, much of the focus on the 9-11 health crisis has missed a broader question, the one that every ground zero worker fears most and the one that Ernie Vallebuona has already had to ponder: What about cancer? What if all that pulverized concrete and ground glass and caustic mist that Vallebuona inhaled while on the Pile didn't attack his lungs but instead went straight for his lymph nodes? Could this noxious mix have caused his lymphoma?

No one has done a comprehensive study of the health consequences on the estimated 40,000 rescue and recovery workers who raced to ground zero after the attacks. A study by Mount Sinai Medical Center—one that received widespread media attention two months ago—released statistics on the five-year anniversary of 9-11 that focused almost exclusively on respiratory problems and bypassed any mention of cancer today.

But David Worby has tracked the cancer patients among his growing client base for the last two years. Here are the latest tallies: Of the 8,500 people now suing the city, 400, or about 5 percent, have cancer. The biggest group by far consists of people like Vallebuona, who have blood cell cancers. Seventy-five clients suffer from lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, and other blood cell cancers; most are men, aged 30 to 60, who appeared in perfect health just five years ago.

The field of cancer research is not known for consensus. But six prominent specialists on cancer and the link to toxins—on the faculty of the nation's top medical schools and public health institutions—all come to the same conclusions when told these statistics. They are Richard Clapp and David Ozonoff, professors of environmental health at Boston University School of Public Health; Michael Thun, director of epidemiological research at the American Cancer Society; Francine Laden, assistant professor of environmental epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health; Jonathan Samet, chairman of the epidemiology department at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Charles Hesdorffer, associate professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. These doctors and epidemiologists agree that the incidence of cancer among this subset of workers sounds shockingly high, that they cannot and should not be dismissed as coincidence, and that the toxic dust cloud that hung over downtown Manhattan, and particularly the Pile, likely caused or promoted the diseases. Some even went so far as to say that the blood cancer cases, especially, indicate what could become a wave of cancer cases stemming from 9-11 over the next decades.

"Those numbers seem quite outrageous," is how Hesdorffer puts it. Now at Johns Hopkins, Hesdorffer directed until last year the tumor immunotherapy program at Columbia University Medical Center, where he treated two recovery workers who got cancer post–9-11. He notes that the average healthy adult person has a 20 percent risk of having cancer over a lifetime. Calculate that risk over five years—the time frame from the events of 9-11 until today—and it drops to about 1 percent. Yet 5 percent of the suits' workers—1 percent of the overall worker population—have already been diagnosed with malignancies. And these patients don't include the thousands whose illnesses have yet to be recorded because they aren't participating in the lawsuits or in the World Trade Center medical-monitoring programs.

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