Death by Dust

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

Meanwhile, Vallebuona had just begun noticing gout-like symptoms. They started in his big toes, which doubled in size and became hot to the touch, and then moved to his knees, joints, and chest. For six months, he went back and forth to the doctor, getting more medicine, seeking more remedies. He wouldn't doubt that diagnosis until October 2004, when the searing stomachache tipped him off to what had really been causing pain in his abdomen.

When he got the cancer diagnosis, Valle-buona was relieved about one thing. His doctor had been wrong about the gout. If nothing else, at least he wouldn't have to live with that excruciating pain for the rest of his life.

As Vallebuona was coming to grips with his cancer in the fall of 2004, Jessy McCarthy was still feeling healthy. The Verizon technician had managed to evade the kinds of respiratory problems that have afflicted so many ground zero workers—the cough, the sinusitis, the asthma—in the two years since his recovery assignment had ended. He would experience nothing to suggest the grave disease that would sneak up on him.

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.

At least not until one day in October 2004, while taking a shower, when he saw a swelling around the glands under his arm, about the size of a marble. He thought: This is not right.

image
In March 2005, after a biopsy of one of his lymph nodes, Jessy McCarthy finally was given the definitive diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. By then, the recovery workers' lawsuits had been more than a year in the making.
photo: Scott McDermott

But McCarthy didn't feel sick; there were no dizzy spells or nausea. A trip to the family doctor to ask about the lump yielded little information, just something questionable about his blood. So McCarthy plodded on with his life, holding down his full-time job, taking care of his teenage son.

Suddenly, within weeks, he noticed the lump had grown, and more had developed. His lymph nodes swelled all over his body, underneath his arms, in his groin, around his neck and chest. The lumps just seemed to sprout; they grew so big that they looked like mini-baseballs. Suddenly, McCarthy found himself undergoing a battery of medical exams—CAT scans, PET scans, blood tests, and anything else that would help narrow down the possibilities. It took six months to rule out every type of lymphatic infection. In March 2005, after a biopsy of one of his lymph nodes, McCarthy finally was given the definitive diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

By then, the recovery workers' lawsuits had been more than a year in the making. Back in the winter of 2004, Walcott had just survived the worst of his hospital stays, a 17-day stretch of 106-degree fevers, and was confined to his home. Months had passed since he learned that his leukemia likely resulted from his exposure to benzene while on the Pile, but he went in search of legal advice. He started with a lawyer friend, who encouraged him to keep looking. One attorney offered to take Walcott's case, as long as he put up his modest house to cover the fees. "Forget it," he said.

Eventually, parents of the kids on his high school hockey team heard about his plight. During a visit, Walcott told some parents about his fruitless search. They had an idea. They could contact a trial lawyer whose son went to the same high school; his name was David Worby.


"I took the case as a favor," the lead attorney in the recovery workers' lawsuits says, sitting in his spacious penthouse office in White Plains. A trim man whose brown hair is graying at the temples, David Worby exudes confidence as he reclines in his chair and recalls the early days of what has become his greatest legal crusade. Long before the 9-11 suits, he had built a reputation as a gladiator lawyer on personal-injury cases; in 1989, he set a Westchester record by winning $18 million for a construction worker run down by a car. Fifteen years later, he was settling into early retirement when one of the Bedford parents told him about the ailing Walcott.

"What was I supposed to do?" Worby asks.

What started out as a case for one sick recovery worker quickly snowballed. Today, a team of 20 attorneys at his firm of Worby Groner Edelman Napoli & Bern is handling the suits, filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, for the thousands of workers associated with the Trade Center cleanup—police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers, iron workers, and Latino day workers. Last month, Federal District Judge Alvin Hellerstein rejected the city's claim for immunity in the Worby lawsuits and recently capped its liability at $1 billion. The judge is expected to appoint a special master to settle the workers' claims.

Worby's client list continues to grow. It now includes Vallebuona, Acker, and McCarthy, all of whom came to him after he filed the first suits in September 2004. They found out about him as most of his clients do—by word of mouth, one sick recovery worker to another, one worried spouse to another. Others have called him after hearing about the cases on TV or the radio or in the papers. Most of the clients have grown ill from respiratory problems like asthma, sinusitis, and bronchitis. But some have kidney failure, and 400 people have developed cancer. So far, 83 clients have died.

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