September 10th, 2010
11:33 AM ET
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."
About this blog
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.