Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

1,700 sue over 9/11 sickness
By Michele McPhee, New York Daily News, May 24, 2004

In a dramatic sign of escalating health problems stemming from 9/11, more than 1,700 cops and firefighters have filed lawsuits against the city claiming they were sickened by work at Ground Zero or the Fresh Kills landfill.

To handle the unprecedented legal overload, the city's Law Department set up a special division to tackle 9/11 claims and appointed attorney Kenneth Becker as chief of the World Trade Center unit.

Underscoring the problem's severity, a police officer was awarded a tax-free disability pension after a judge issued a landmark ruling that 9/11 work was a contributing factor in the cop's cancer.

Richard Lahm, 49, who retired from the 46th Precinct in the Bronx this year, is battling terminal tonsil cancer - a condition his doctor claims was caused by the toxins released at Ground Zero.

Last month, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Kibbie Payne ruled that Lahm's cancer "was exacerbated" by his work after the terrorist attacks and ordered the city to pay him a tax-free disability pension.

While most medical experts doubt any cancer clusters would emerge so soon after 9/11, there is extensive evidence of other ailments among those who worked at Ground Zero or Fresh Kills - where nearly 2 million tons of Trade Center debris was taken to be sifted through.

The illnesses include sarcoidosis, a permanent lung condition; asthma; reactive airway disorders; chronic coughs, and emergency workers with glass lodged in their lung tissue, according to medical records reviewed by the Daily News.

"If I got a cancer after working in the terrible conditions cops, firefighters, construction workers did and developed a cancer a few years later, of course my first thought would be I got it there," said Dr. Stephen Levin, the medical director of the center for occupational and environmental medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center.

But, he added, "It's too soon. It's impossible to say definitively there is an increase in cancer until we get a better sense of the people whose faces were in the plume there."

Dr. Kerry Kelly, chief medical officer for the FDNY, has been monitoring the health problems of firefighters since Sept. 11 and said while respiratory issues are the most prevalent problem, cancer is a major concern.

"We've had so many different reports from the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] we don't know what people were exposed to. The synergy of all those substances mixed together ... we never had an exposure such as this," Kelly said. "Our concern is, what will be the long-term consequence. Cancer tends to be something that develops after years - but it's very hard to say the cancers we are seeing weren't caused by what happened on 9/11."

Kelly and FDNY spokesman Frank Gribbon said firefighters tend to develop cancer at a higher rate than civilians because of the toxins they are exposed to. From 1999 to the World Trade Center attacks, 104 firefighters were diagnosed with cancer. From Sept. 11, 2001, until today, that number dropped to 71.

More than 300 firefighters have retired with disabilities related to injuries and illnesses related to their work at Ground Zero, Gribbon said. There are an additional 300 disability pension cases pending, meaning that 600 firefighters are on track to retire with three-quarter pensions.

"The Fire Department is concerned about health risks. We gave medicals to every one of our people since 9/11 - active and retired firefighters," Gribbon said.

The FDNY received a $25 million federal grant to monitor health issues with firefighters. The NYPD was denied a similar grant.

NYPD Supervising Chief Surgeon Eli Kleinman, a hematologist and consultant to the city's Trade Center health registry, said the department is "very concerned" about cops developing cancer but has not seen a spike in cases since the terror attacks.

"There are many unknowns here," Kleinman said. "There is no evidence of date of clusters of cancer or malignancies related to 9/11. One cannot rule anything in or out."

Detective John Walcott is one of those cops who has filed a notice of claim against the city seeking financial compensation after he was diagnosed with cancer last May.

The rugged, athletic 39-year-old narcotics detective and hockey coach is living with deadly acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) - a cancer his doctors believe was caused by a toxic mix of pulverized compounds he breathed in while sifting through the rubble at Ground Zero or the Fresh Kills landfill.

AML is often caused by exposure to chemicals and radiation, primarily benzene, a toxin found in airline fuel, his doctors and lawyers said. Walcott said he never smoked, rarely drinks and lives in upstate New York where he says he's never been exposed to any carcinogens.

"I've never been sick a day in my life, except for a sore throat or a common cold," Walcott told The News with his attorney, David Worby, at his side. "I've had friends of mine who were stationed with me [at the landfill] visit me in the hospital and panic, asking me, 'Am I next?'"

This year, Walcott has undergone bone marrow transplants and a series of chemotherapy treatments, and he often wakes up in the middle of the night with blood coming out of his eyes. But the worst pain is not physical, he said.

"I missed the first year of my daughter's life," said Walcott, whose only daughter, Colleen, recently turned 2.

"The hardest part is each day I spend with her, I think ... is this going to be the last one?" he added, before his shoulders began to shake with tears.

NYPD street crime Detective Robert Williamson, 43, became sick with pancreatic cancer in March 2003, a year after he retired from the force. Williamson, his doctors and his attorney, Michael Barach, insist he became sick inhaling carcinogens at Ground Zero 16 hours a day for five months. He never smoked and has no family history of cancer.

"It's been a nightmare. My doctors are telling me basically to go home and die," said Williamson, a married father of three children, ages 12, 9 and 7.

"Did I know the air was not safe? Yes. Would I go down there again today knowing that? Yes. A lot of people made sacrifices," he said. "I might be a casualty of 9/11, but at least I had a few more years with my family."

Williamson is not the only potential casualty associated with the health risks of the Trade Center aftermath.

Union leaders for the police and firefighters say they've seen too many cases

Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives Endowment Association, had his members fill out a medical survey. He was disturbed by the findings.

"I have a lot of active detectives who are extremely sick. I have retired detectives, healthy people, coming down with all kinds of strange illnesses, cancers and diseases they never had before."

Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steven Cassidy said three Brooklyn firefighters have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer since working at Ground Zero. Another has leukemia. Hundreds more have retired with asthma and other respiratory issues, he said.

"All these guys with cancer worked extensively at Ground Zero. How can anyone draw a conclusion that the cancer is not related to their work there?" Cassidy said.

Port Authority Patrolman's Benevolent Association President Gus Danese said his members are complaining of lung ailments, mouth sores and chronic coughs. He is bracing himself for worse.

"We lost 37 members on 9/11. Could that number go higher because of the air quality at Ground Zero and the landfill? Absolutely," Danese said. "Now the question is, what do we do?"

Patrolman's Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch predicted Lahm's case would be the first of many similar ones. "Richie Lahm is just the beginning," Lynch said.

Barach, Williamson's lawyer, has six retired city cops and six city firefighters as clients, all of whom have developed cancer since 9/11.

"I fear that a lot of guys who worked in the rescue effort were given a death sentence," Barach said. "A lot of them don't even know it yet."



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