Hundreds of people are suing New York City over cancer diagnoses they received after working at ground zero on Sept. 11. A judge last week rejected a $575 million settlement for thousands of ill responders in part because he thought it should contain more money for cancer victims.
Yet statistics show cancer rates among those who worked in World Trade Center rubble are in line with rates of the public.
Three major research efforts tracking the health of ground zero responders have so far failed to turn up evidence linking any type of cancer to the dust.
Many of the cancers now afflicting ground zero workers are common. There are plenty of theories as to how the dust might cause cancer but little proof. Even the scientists most concerned about a potential link said the length of time it takes for many cancers to develop means it could be years before cases related to Sept. 11 begin to emerge.
That lack of evidence has complicated efforts to craft a compensation package for sick workers.
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein noted the dilemma when he shot down a settlement that would have resolved nearly 10,000 lawsuits over post-Sept. 11 illnesses. The judge suggested he was willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the sick.
“The people who went into 9/11 did not make calculations on cancers and whether they would get or wouldn’t get cancer. ... They responded,” he said. He said a part of the settlement capping payments at $100,000 for people who develop illnesses in the future was inadequate.
New York’s state health department, which tracked fatalities for several years among the roughly 40,000 ground zero workers, confirmed at least 250 cancer-related deaths though June 2009. Analysis of other deaths is ongoing.
Doctors note, however, that cancer causes nearly one of every four deaths in the U.S. and is a frequent killer even among people in their 40s and 50s. A woman’s average lifetime risk for breast cancer is one in eight.
Top doctors for the Fire Department, who are conducting a study involving 15,000 firefighters, have said they found no clear increase in cancers. A study by the city’s health department also hasn’t found elevated cancer rates among 71,000 Lower Manhattan residents.
Mount Sinai has found no notable spike yet in cancers among the 27,000 ground zero workers it has been tracking, Dr. Philip Landrigan of the WTC Medical Monitoring and Treatment Center at Mount Sinai Hospital.
That doesn’t mean there is no danger, Landrigan said. He said he and other researchers had “big concerns” cancer clusters will emerge as the years go by.
Scientists think environmental toxins cause cancer by damaging cells, which then go through a series of mutations before becoming malignant. That mutation process usually takes place very slowly.