Death by Dust

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

Over the past year, the police union has fielded a steady increase in calls from members who have developed cancer since working at ground zero. Last July, the PBA started its own World Trade Center health registry for its members, listing seven cancer cases at the time. Today, there are 20 cases; they include the 35-year-old who worked on the Pile and at Fresh Kills and now has multiple myeloma, the 45-year-old who surveyed the Trade Center site for two years and now has leukemia, and the 41-year-old who manned the landfill morgue for three weeks and now has myeloma.

"Now, don't you think this is all very suspicious?" O'Leary asks. "The medical community needs to be more open-minded about what diseases can be caused by 9-11."

Some cancer specialists agree. Hesdorffer, of Johns Hopkins, still remembers the reaction to his testimony before the Victim Compensation Fund, back in 2004. He was called back about a half-dozen times to explain why he would attribute the pancreatic cancer in his two patients to the dust cloud so soon after 9-11. It was as if no one wanted to make the connection; one patient lost his claim despite the doctor's opinion.

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.

"We're in this period where no one wants to accept the link," Hesdorffer observes. Maybe the official denial stems from economics, from a desire to limit the amount of money owed to the thousands who have lost their health. Or maybe it has to do with politics. Admitting a link, as he points out, "would mean that the fallout from 9-11 was a lot bigger than we'd thought."

What it would mean is that people got cancer from government decisions. From the decision of Whitman to lie about the air quality in Lower Manhattan, which gave the recovery workers and many other New Yorkers a false sense of security. From the decision of the White House to put Wall Street ahead of public health, which the EPA inspector general found had influenced all those rosy statements. And from the decision to let workers toil without proper respirators for weeks, or without any respirators at all.


For Gary Acker, now 54 and still undergoing monthly chemical drips to heal his bones, gone are the annual trips hunting for caribou in Canada and fishing for trout in the Adirondacks. Those years in the late '90s when he threw the javelin and shot put in the New York version of the Olympics seem like an adolescent memory. No longer working at AT&T, he devotes his time to trying to relax, watching mindless sitcoms on TV, anything to make himself laugh. "If I'm laughing, I'm not stressed," he says. His doctors tell him that no stress means less chance of a cancer relapse.

Last year, Jessy McCarthy, now 48, had to work through his chemotherapy treatment, juggling the 72-hour drips with his job and his son for six months. He didn't have much choice; otherwise he'd lose his medical benefits. He could never afford the medical bills on his $65,000 salary; some of his medications cost $5,000 a dose. Now in remission, he continues to fix phone lines, though he knows the day will come when he can't anymore. Already, he has had to call for help on assignments he used to do alone. He also knows, in the back of his mind, that his cancer is the kind that will likely return, and possibly kill him.

Walcott and Vallebuona, both retired from the force because of their cancer, continue to live with the side effects of their treatments—the lost feeling in their hands and feet and the extreme fatigue. While Vallebuona has undergone chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant, he still hasn't been able to beat his lymphoma into remission. They also grapple with what they both like to call "chemo brain." The drugs left Walcott, now 42, too incoherent to witness or recall the first time his daughter learned to walk or talk. For Vallebuona, now 41, the littler things seem to escape him, like the weekend plans his wife mentioned earlier in the day. But even their foggy minds have not erased the memories of two planes hitting the World Trade Center on that sunny September morning, when they had woken up healthy and happy to be alive.

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