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September 10th, 2010
11:33 AM ET

Former worker: '100 percent' sure cancer is linked to Ground Zero

In the days following the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings in 2001, a smoky pall hung over lower Manhattan. It was toxic dust that would linger for months.

"It was like a horror movie," said Jevon Thomas, 44, who worked at Ground Zero for more than a year. "Everywhere you went there was dust. It was in the air. It was on the ground. It was on everything you touched, everything you saw."

That dust - and certain toxic components it contained, like dioxin, benzene, and asbestos - is at the center of an emotional drama still playing out nine years after the September 11 attacks. Many Ground Zero workers, like Thomas (he developed a rare cancer called epithelioid sarcoma), believe that their cancers stem from that dust, but science does not support that belief.

"It's no coincidence that within a year of me working there every day that I started growing a lump in my hand and it turned out to be cancer," said Thomas. "You can't work in an environment with so many different chemicals and carcinogens... for a year straight, day in and day out, and not come down with something."

Thomas developed his first sarcoma in 2002. A second tumor appeared in 2003 and recently, preliminary tests indicate he has lung cancer.

Still, several studies conducted by major health centers indicate that cancer is not a leading health problem among the estimated 40,000 Ground Zero workers.

"We have not seen any patterns yet that we can definitively link to exposures people suffered," said Dr. Philip Landrigan, head of the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program at Mount Sinai Hospital.

The most common illnesses encountered among workers are respiratory problems, gastrointestinal disease (likely caused by ingesting dust), and mental health issues like post traumatic stress disorder and depression, according to Landrigan.

The lack of hard data does nothing to allay a nagging feeling among workers and their families, who say that it cannot be a coincidence that their rare and aggressive cancers developed after working at Ground Zero.

"I am 100 percent sure without hesitation that 9/11 and its aftermath caused so many illnesses and cancers in these men and women," said John Feal, a former Ground Zero worker and advocate for first responders struggling with health problems. "Many of the toxins at Ground Zero if bottled would have a warning on the bottle saying this may cause cancer. And then added with other toxic poisons, the scientific and medical world has never seen anything like it before. So I am positive and no one can tell me different."

Despite the dearth of scientific data, Landrigan believes that Ground Zero workers should be monitored, in case a cancer cluster does eventually emerge.

"We know full well responders were exposed to carcinogens, asbestos, benzene dioxin...a whole complex mix of stuff in combinations we have probably never before encountered," said Landrigan. "There is certainly a distinct possibility that work-related cancer could emerge in them."

Thomas has no regrets about his time at Ground Zero, but he is frustrated and fearful about his health problems.

"Before this tragedy life was great," said Thomas. "I had it all, you know, and now it's a nightmare. It's horrible."


soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Tracey H

    I can understand that those who have cancer after this incident believe it must be connected to the event, but I know many people who've had cancer in the past 10 years who weren't at Ground Zero: a teenaged girl and a young man in his 20s who died of melanoma, a 40-yr-old man who died of mesanthelioma, a 40-something man who died of colon cancer and many others who survived their bouts with cancer. That's why statistics are kept (and need to be kept) to determine whether there's an increase in rates of cases of those exposed.

    September 10, 2010 at 14:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Steve R

    I completely agree with Tracey H, data regarding the rates of cancer needs to be collected for people who were exposed to the environment at ground zero. The only way to be "100% sure" is to analyze such data and compare it to cancer rates in the population not exposed to air / dust / environment at ground zero. Even then there really is no way to be "100% sure", such certainty rarely (if ever) exists in life or science. If we were to see a spike in the incidence of epithelioid sarcoma in ground zero workers that would be very compelling given the rarity of that specific tumor type. People (i.e. the media, CNN) should keep in mind that “cancer” is not a single disease–cancers from different organs and even subtypes of cancers within the same organ—often have very specific microscopic appearances, specific etiologic factors, specific genetic changes, different behaviors / prognoses etc. The idea that cancer is a single disease is very outdated and thus unless there is a specific tumor type developing in ground zero workers (rather than some people with lung cancer, some with colon, some with epithelioid sarcoma, some with lymphoma, etc) it seems unlikely that there is a link here but questions should be asked and data should be collected.
    On of the overarching themes of this story seems to revolve around money via lawsuits. I think that it is very sad that these days, in many situations, we find the courts and attorneys’ deciding what constitutes the "best" and "most accurate" scientific evidence. Last time I checked people in the legal field were experts in the law not science. I have great sympathy and respect for all of those folks out there that worked so hard in the days, months, and years after the events of 9/11/01 but the fact is correlation does not equal causation. For example, the rates of tuberculosis are much lower in "first world" countries than in "third world" countries, "first world" countries have more televisions per household than "third world" countries, therefore televisions cure tuberculosis or the lack of televisions cause tuberculosis. Sounds ridiculous, no? This is what attorneys often do with scientific evidence / literature. Unfortunately, in most situations their flawed logic and exaggerations aren't so obvious.

    September 10, 2010 at 14:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. David Howard

    Google "9/11 Nukes – Radiation-induced cancers"

    September 10, 2010 at 14:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dungy

      OK, but only after you google, "paranoid personality disorder"

      September 12, 2010 at 10:45 | Report abuse |
  4. pamela

    Prospective epidemiological studies should be done of people who spent an extended period of time within a fairly sizable radius outside NYC (those that would have not only a short duration blast of exposure to the debris in the air but aso those exposed to lower levels of aerosolized particles for an extended period of time). My guess is that we will, unfortunately, see a significant increase in the incidence of mesothelioma in NYC and the surrounding areas over the next 10 – 15 years.

    September 10, 2010 at 15:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Arlene McCormack

    This in regard to the 9ll building site for the Islamic Community Center in New York. As a former New Yorker, I feel no attention would have been given if this particular area in New York wasn't considered for the site. I believe in religous freedom, however, I also believe in respect for those lives that were lost . The Islamic group wanted attention and now they have the attention of the entire planet. It would be most gracious if they considered another location. This has nothing to do with religious freedom it has to do with respect. I believe this was conceived on purpose, for the sole purpose of media attention which, is initself disgusting. If they didn't want any attention they should have considered another site.
    If we as Americans wanted to build a community center in the middle of one of their war trodden land marks I can assure u there woudl be no discussion. We would be run out of their country or countries.All this in the name of God how down right evil.

    September 10, 2010 at 18:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • leaveUSalone

      I think that it is the Muslims who need to learn religious tolerance. United States already has the most kind, helpful and tolerant people in the world. We have been made to suffer greatly by Muslims killing and tormenting in the name of Allah. It is time for them to take that 100 million dollars and put it to good use helping America heal 911 families and responders, and use it to un-brainwash Muslims everywhere. Forget about building your symbol of "peace" in NYC. You are not fooling anyone. Your lack of sensitivity speaks volumes. Take the money to instead educate Muslims to the fact that their religion is vile and backward, and use the money to correct the horrific human rights abuses done by Muslims everywhere-especially to your women and girls.

      September 13, 2010 at 12:21 | Report abuse |
  6. Bruce Shriver

    For readers who would like to learn more about Epithelioid Sarcoma, you can access a detailed review article about this rare cancer at http://bit.ly/6G3NJv

    September 11, 2010 at 05:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Cec

    I went to NYC in October 2001 and I remember there being a horrible smell in the air at different times. At the time I was told it was from the dust from the WTC. The best way I could describe the smell is burnt plastic/chemicals and death.

    I wouldn't at all be surprised if this could cause cancer to people who were exposed to it. But a lot of people get cancer all over the country, so obviously every case of cancer in NYC is not caused by 9/11 dust. But it would be good to do a study and see if there is a cancer cluster in NYC since 9/11 and see if firefighters and those who were in and around the WTC that day have a significantly higher cancer rates.

    September 11, 2010 at 18:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. R P

    While I feel sorry for those who have become sick it is annoying that people would blame their cancer on 9/11. Many people get cancer and it is very possible for one to work on ground zero and to get cancer. Many cancers take years to develop so for this person to get cancer within a year of the incident suggesst that he must have had it before without any signs or symptoms. I'm fine with researching patients but to think that Ground zero workers need to be specially monitored is premature.

    September 11, 2010 at 23:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MS. Davis

      Did you hear what was in the dust at the ground zero site? This man along with firefighters and other workers who worked at the ground zero site extensively for a long period of time developed cancer. This is not surprising. Other expert might say that this cancer normally takes 20 years to develop, but when you look at the environment and the chemical present I am not shock one bit. People that live and work everyday near that site today might still be at risk for developing cancer. His cancer developing so early to me is expected. Paracelsus did say the dose make the poison and it can affect how early or how late a toxic effect occur. It seem a lot of experts forgot when they are giving out money to these people. Since I am not a toxicologist for the government I can say that it is very much possible for him to get that cancer in such a short period of time.

      September 13, 2010 at 04:55 | Report abuse |
  9. Mary

    I'm sure this guy is disappointed, but it seems like he's just desperately looking for something to blame. Sorry buddy. It's just life. It happens to a lot of people.

    September 12, 2010 at 04:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ridiculous

      its not the "life" this guy has cancer cause the ground zero was a toxic place , asbesto is very dangerous , you have to investigate before talk bullshit , i know a girl who lives in new york and she has cancer and she's just 28 years old , all that posion and toxic dust was in the air of new york so i think these people needs money for their families before they die , George Bush made a mistake allowing that all the people came back to their houses the same week .

      September 13, 2010 at 04:05 | Report abuse |
    • MS. Davis

      Before you say its just life,investigate what was in the air and how carcinogenic those chemical and particulates are. As a toxicologists, I can tell you a combination of what was at ground zero is very dangerous. Ground zero should be labeled as a superfund environment right now because we still does not know what kind of chemicals we are dealing with right now. People in downtown Manhattan and nearby cities should be very worried. This man had an early onset of this type of cancer because of the dosage,but with other people it might take longer because they are receiving lesser dosage of this toxic mixture. Before speaking, please do your research and don't always believe people who are working for the government to disagree with the people! Remember the government is paying them to say "NO" this substance is not toxic.

      September 13, 2010 at 05:02 | Report abuse |
  10. Allison

    I live in New York and lived downtown in Manhattan in 2001. In the nine years that have passed I have known two close friends, both in their thirties, to be diagnosed with colon cancer and lung cancer (one of whom lost his battle two years ago). I do not think it is premature or the least bit bold to assume that for all of us who were breathing in toxic fumes for months after the attacks that we have a higher risk of cancer than those outside the tri-state area. As Cec posted above, the fires at Ground Zero blazed until December of 2001. The smell and dust from the attacks was inescapable, it was in our homes and offices. It was almost a year after the attacks before I felt like the city "smelled" normal again. A whole year of nonstop exposure to carcinogens? Come on.

    September 12, 2010 at 15:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Ann

    Studies to determine if a substance is carcinogenic are usually done by testing just that one substance and very rarely, if at all, are combinations of carcinogenic studied to see how they affect the body and the cancer(s) they are likely to cause. It's not at all unreasonable to believe that people who have long-term exposure to higher than normal levels of multiple carcinogens are more likely to get cancer than a population as a whole or a similar population that is exposed to only one carcinogen. Some cancers can take decades to occur; others occur and progress MUCH more rapidly.
    The diversity of the mechanisms that cause cancer are part of the reason that, despite many decades of research and attempts to fight it, cancer has not been "cured". It's why the treatments for different cancer are often different and also a major reason why some cancers kill so quickly and others take much longer or don't kill at all.
    It might well be a very good idea to spend the money to do an epidemiological study of health problems that affect the people that lived and worked near or on the site.
    Yes, other people get cancer, too, often through no fault of their own. I'm one of those people.Some people come down with cancer while others don't under the same situations. None of that is the choice of the people involved.
    Allison's right; to expect people to NOT have cancer after a year of heavy exposure to (multiple) carcinogens is obviously not a rational expectation.
    Belittling the beliefs of those people who do get cancer and have experience that exposure, especially along with the stress of working in such a tragic situation, is by far more irrational than the belief of the cancer victim. A "critic" doing so when you haven't experienced that situation, aren't an expert on cancer, and/or don't have the medical or scientific training to make an informed response, goes far beyond behaving without sympathy or empathy. Doing so belittles not just the cancer victim; it also belittles the critic and demonstrates a lack of empathy for other human beings.
    Remember that we now all accept that smoking is likely to cause lung (and other) cancers but it wasn't an accepted fact when I was young; it was only after lots of data was gathered through epidemiological studies and research that it was proven to be the case.
    It might also be good to keep in mind that we, in the United States and other developed countries, have a lot of chemicals, a good number of which are carcinogens, in our blood streams. You are what you eat . . . and drink and breath. Before you say they aren't in your bloodstream, get the (very expensive) tests to check. You'll probably be surprised with how much PCBs you are walking around with, and that includes people who "eat healthy" and look and act fine.
    Look before you leap. That 9/11 worker may be totally right and studies might not only prove him right, those same studies might save your life in the future.

    September 13, 2010 at 03:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Hannibal

    There is already a cancer registry to track the types and levels for those exposed during 9/11 in NYC. Look up the WTC Health Registry run by the NYC Dept of Health and Mental Hygiene. It is funded by the federal government...

    September 13, 2010 at 12:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. David Howard

    pure fission bombs = Google "9/11 Cancers"

    September 21, 2010 at 12:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. gary unsworth

    I have found this article very interesting. Thank you for your insight and for sharing this.

    September 29, 2010 at 15:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Carl B

    I agree research needs to be done,...but who is doing it is the question, if anyone...I worked in lower manhattan on 9/11 and then 5 days a week for the following 3 years leaving in 2004. In June of 2009 I was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer angiosarcoma, cancer of you blood vessels. Thank god after 6 months of chemotreatments and 25 radiation treatments I have beaten back this killer which claims most diagnosed within 6 months of diagnosis...this rare form of cancer has typically been linked to some type of carcinogen in the environment, it is not genetic. I still wonder whether that acrid smell that engulfed lower manahattan for months after the attack has something to do with it.

    December 22, 2010 at 17:19 | Report abuse | Reply
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