op-ed

Exaggerations in 9/11 illnesses

Jeff Stier Senior Fellow, National Center for Public Policy Research

While there may be a few valid illness claims buried among the 10,000 or so cases in the big “9/11 lawsuit” now approaching trial, the overwhelming majority clearly relies on junk science. Sadly, there’s a whole industry set up to supply that junk—funded by lawyers eager to fuel such lawsuits, staffed by researchers eager to push bizarre theories, and promoted by ignorant reporters and politicians.

As the May trial date for the first set of 9/11 health claims nears, thousands are suing the City and contractors, claiming that even short-term exposure to “toxic dust” at the WTC site has caused various chronic illnesses. Meanwhile, the New York and New Jersey congressional delegation is standing by to make sure the American taxpayers dutifully pay for it, no questions asked.

There are approximately 10,000 cases in all. According to James E. Tyrrell Jr., chief counsel on the case for the City of New York (as well as for the contractors being sued), “The plaintiffs allege 387 different diseases or conditions, all attributable to 9/11 exposure.”

Those diseases cover multiple forms of cancer, skin ailments, elevated blood sugar, hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and asbestosis and other lung diseases—with far-flung, multiplying claims of this sort common in cases where no credible, specific mechanism of disease has been identified. The claimants keep throwing a wider net in hopes of finding something convincing to vindicate all the claims in the grab bag.

Science doesn’t support any of the claims. Columbia University pulmonologist Dr. Kenneth Prager observes that many of the diseases alleged in the suits are not even known to be caused by this type of exposure: “There is no scientific validity to the claim that asbestosis is a result of 9/11 exposure,” for example.

Compensation decisions, according to one congressional staffer, will rely in part on information from institutions such as the Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Mt. Sinai Medical School here in New York. That center was founded by labor leaders and has been a factory for producing apparent links between illnesses with defendants, regardless of the science. The center has claimed that 85 percent of the 70,000 people they studied from the Ground Zero area are suffering respiratory problems—but is the center a credible arbiter of science?

In its early years, the center’s researchers, led by Dr. Selikoff, did groundbreaking work on occupational exposure to asbestos in the workplace, correctly linking high-dose, long-term exposure to these fibers with lung and other diseases. But recently, the center has dedicated itself to scaring people, particularly parents, about trace levels of transient exposures to environmental chemicals like phthalates—which have been used safely for over fifty years to make plastics flexible but have been the subject of highly speculative and paranoid theories about them disrupting sex hormones.

Last year, Mt. Sinai lent its good name to a series of ads in the New York Times, buying a platform to raise anxieties about chemicals in the environment. One ad—headlined “What’s getting into our children?”—claimed that thousands of new synthetic chemicals introduced in recent decades were responsible for a full spectrum of diseases including cancer, ADHD, asthma, and even autism. The breadth of alleged health effects combined with the paucity of evidence supporting them sound eerily familiar to the alleged 9/11 effects.

It is no wonder. Mt. Sinai’s Dr. Phil Landrigan, who took over for Dr. Selikoff, has long partnered with compensation-seeking unions and trial lawyers. Going to Mt. Sinai for the verdict on whether workers are sick is akin to placing a thumb on the scales of justice.

The first suits to be heard are those deemed to have the best cases, but when examined more closely their claims are based on flimsy evidence and even potentially fraudulent claims.

For example, an independent analysis by the Associated Press uncovered some troubling facts about some of these cases. One plaintiff who claims to have gotten sick after six months of work at the World Trade Center site testified years ago in a medical malpractice case that he was too sick to work between 2000 and 2003. Is 9/11 dust really the source of his problems? And this is one of the better cases, according to some involved with the suits.

There are programs already online, including monitoring and care, for those claiming illness related to 9/11. The Obama administration just doubled funding funding for such programs to $140 million for the coming year alone. But to many, such as Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), much more is needed still. Her bill, the James Zadroga Act, would open compensation to even more dubious cases and add another $10 billion to the pot. The law would allow workers, like those suing the city, to skip the trip to court and simply apply for cash. It would open up the floodgates to those who may not be able to prove their case in court.

In response to an inquiry, Rep. Maloney wrote, “Let’s be clear: we know from dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies that thousands of people, 9/11 responders and lower Manhattan residents alike, were injured by toxins at Ground Zero and some of them have died from their exposure.” Maloney’s studies are generally published in journals devoted to creating just such claims, but they lack credibility in the broad scientific arena.

In fact, if even medium-term (many months) of exposure to 9/11 dust is responsible for chronic illness, it would represent a complete departure from everything scientists know about the causes of chronic disease.

Ironically, her bill is named after Det. James Zadroga, whose name was in the headlines when the New Jersey medical examiner was persuaded to link his death to 9/11, a first. But the New Jersey findings were later reviewed by New York City’s medical examiner, who found his death was associated with the misuse of painkilling drugs rather than 9/11 dust. Zadroga was a hero and his death was tragic—it just wasn’t from toxic 9/11 dust.

Ironically, Zadroga’s name is appropriate for Maloney’s bill, since it would stick the taxpayer for the bill for all sorts of illness cases like Zadroga’s completely unrelated to 9/11.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), who chairs the subcommittee which has jurisdiction over the health provisions of the bill, told me that the legislation (which he supports) “enumerates certain disorders that are clearly related to 9/11, and the bill would allow for other conditions that may not be enumerated to be included at a later date.”

This opens the fund to claims like that of NYPD Officer Cesar Borja. He was the symbol of the “second round of 9/11 victims.” Press accounts said he’d rushed downtown to rescue workers on 9/11. But it turns out he wasn’t sent to the site until late December and served fewer than 20 shifts. The City Medical Examiner ruled his death the result of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. The medical term “idiopathic” means we do not know the cause. But when politicians, activists, and a sympathetic media join forces with crafty lawyers, there’s little room for the science of epidemiology.

These sorts of cases, whether heard in court or the adminstrators of a federal fund, should be judged by science, not some misplaced sense of goodwill towards 9/11 heroes. But the latter is exactly what is happening.

Plaintiffs’ attorney David Worby told the AP, “There is no question anymore about whether they were sick, and how sick they are. There are tens of thousands of people who are sick.” Asked if the claims are based on good science, Worby will only say, “These are cops and firemen and construction workers who were there for the city.”

Nobody disagrees that workers who were injured as a result of their heroic efforts on 9/11 and the days thereafter should be fairly compensated if any injuries and illnesses were caused by their exposures. But the process has been taken over by politicians who want money for their districts, labor leaders, and environmental activists like those at Mt. Sinai.

As a result, we are about to see a huge and corrupt transfer of funds from sympathetic American taxpayers to activists, unions, lawyers, and perhaps even outright fraudsters.

Jeff Stier is an associate director of the American Council on Science and Health.