Death by Dust

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

In these early days, Acker, Vallebuona, and Walcott all struggled to protect themselves from the toxic dust. The foul odor clogged the air for the three months that Vallebuona ended up working at the site—first on the Pile, hauling rubble with buckets, then around the perimeter, providing security and escorting residents to their dust-laden homes. When he and Walcott searched the rubble as part of the initial bucket brigade, they wore nothing over their faces but surgical masks. Respirator masks came weeks into their months-long recovery work; sometimes they came with the wrong filters.

Because Walcott was a detective, he ended up spending his five-month stint not just at ground zero, but also at Fresh Kills. As much as he choked on the Lower Manhattan air, he dreaded the Staten Island landfill. Walcott knew everything in the towers had fallen—desks, lights, computers. But apart from the occasional steel beam, the detritus that he sifted through there consisted of tiny grains of dust—no furniture pieces, no light fixtures, not even a computer mouse.

At times, the detectives would take shelter in wooden sheds, in an attempt to get away from what Walcott likes to call "all that freaking bad air." One day, he was sitting in the shed with his colleagues, eating candy bars and drinking sodas, when some FBI agents entered. They were dressed in full haz-mat suits, complete with head masks, which they had sealed shut with duct tape to ward off the fumes. As Walcott took in the scene, contrasting the well-protected FBI agents with the New York cops wearing respirator masks, one thought entered his mind: What is wrong with this picture?

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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The same thought would cross Acker's mind only fleetingly, and only after weeks of working near ground zero, while he was hacking so hard he vomited something akin to chewed-up licorice. During his first days at the site, he wore the painter's mask that an NYPD lieutenant had given him, but it soon became too filthy from debris. By October, he was spitting up so much gunk that he called his doctor for an antibiotics prescription. But he wouldn't leave the site; when the fumes got bad, he'd sit in the company trailer and flip on the air conditioner. That had a filter, at least. AT&T had stocked its disaster trailers with almost everything—rubber boots, hard hats, rope, a first aid kit. Funny, Acker thought, staring at the shelves. All this stuff, yet no one had ever considered respirators.

Around this time, McCarthy was just beginning to report for recovery duty. When Verizon asked for volunteers to restore phone lines near ground zero, he didn't hesitate. He arrived for his first assignment in early October and wound up staying downtown for the next 13 months, going from basement to basement, moving from Wall Street skyscrapers to Chinatown walk-ups. The first thing he saw in the company terminals was the Trade Center dust, piled on top of consoles, crammed into corners. He had to wipe down the equipment with his bare hands to see the wires. The dust had an orange hue; at times, it twinkled. And it always stunk, an unforgettable smell he struggled to get past every time. Invariably, he'd find it in his hair, on his eyelashes, in his tool belt, even under his fingernails. Sometimes, he'd gaze at the ceiling and get the sense of standing in the middle of a meadow thick with pollen. He could see the soot and dust floating in the air.

When it occurred to these responders that they might be sacrificing their health for the sake of the cleanup—as it did to anyone who came in contact with the foul-smelling smoke and dust—they took comfort in the official word at the time. In the immediate aftermath of 9-11, the EPA issued multiple statements on the air quality downtown. All were reassuring in nature. On September 18, the day after the New York Stock Exchange reopened for business, the EPA's Whitman said the air was safe to breathe.

It has turned out those words were, in fact, false. In August 2003, the EPA inspector general issued a scathing 155-page report concluding that the agency hadn't had the data to make such blanket declarations at that time. By then, more than a quarter of EPA samples showed unsafe levels of asbestos, and the agency had yet to complete tests for mercury, cadmium, lead, dioxin, and PCBs. The inspector general's report went on to disclose another disconcerting fact—that the White House had pressured the EPA to sanitize its warnings about ground zero. The inspector general revealed that the White House Council on Environmental Quality had taken a red pen to the agency's press releases, adding reassuring statements and deleting cautionary ones, creating the overly rosy picture that the air was clean.

In reality, the 9-11 fallout was like nothing anyone had been exposed to before. Everything in the towers had been ground into dust—concrete, steel, glass, insulation, plastic, and computers. Dust analyses would detect glass shards, cement particles, cellulose fibers, asbestos, and a mixture of harmful components, including lead, titanium, barium, and gypsum. In all, the dust contained more than 100 different compounds, some of which have never been identified. And then there were the fires that smoldered for three months. They gave off not only the putrid plume, but also a blast of carcinogens—asbestos, dioxin, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. They also emitted benzene.

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