When cops are ailing, they are not, as a rule, especially noisy about it. Two springs ago, John Walcott noticed his energy deserting him, but he blamed it on the sorts of things that any man who’s six-foot-two and built like a barge would blame it on—his newborn daughter, his hockey coaching, the daily strains of working in the NYPD narcotics unit, where he’d finally returned full-time after months of World Trade Center recovery work. As his energy continued to drain away, Walcott allowed for the possibility of stress, even an illness—Lyme disease, maybe? He contemplated going to the doctor, even though, as he puts it, he’s not a “go-to-the-doctor kind of guy.”
Then came Mother’s Day, an occasion he and his wife would celebrate for the first time as parents—their daughter, Colleen, was born the previous June. Walcott spent that Sunday morning as he always did, running a local hockey clinic. His head swam. He tore through three Gatorades. He couldn’t catch his breath. He left practice early, stopped at ShopRite for groceries, and then pulled into his driveway. As he walked up the stairs to his home, his arms draped to the biceps in shopping bags (“I don’t like making more than one trip from the car to the house,” he says), he lost his breath again. And then Walcott, all 225 pounds of him, fell to his knees.
Two weeks later, Walcott was in the hematologist’s office with a two-foot needle plunged into his tailbone, trying to keep still as the doctor scraped out samples of his bone marrow. It took just minutes to deliver the diagnosis: acute myelogenous leukemia, a white-blood-cell cancer. The doctor ordered Walcott straight to the hospital, where he stayed for 22 days undergoing chemotherapy. He lost his hair, coughed up dark chunks of blood, and watched the whites of his eyes turn red. His immune system was so compromised he was allowed only one visit with Colleen, then 11 months old, who stayed in her stroller under a plastic veil.
“When I got diagnosed,” says Walcott, “I was going crazy. I’d never been sick. But I’ll never forget: I had a variety of doctors and nurses, and a question they all asked—which I found crazy at the time—was, ‘Were you ever exposed to radiation or benzene?’ They wanted to know if I worked in an airport or if I delivered airline fuel. And I was like, ‘No.’ ”
“We were dumbfounded by how many people were sick, and how sick they were, and how sick they still are,” says a Mount Sinai doctor. “I’m frankly very concerned about cancer.”
Later, a nurse explained that Walcott’s form of leukemia was sometimes associated with benzene exposure, a fact he mentioned to his sister the next time they spoke. She gingerly pointed out that of course he’d been exposed: What on earth did he think was stoking the flames of the World Trade Center if not jet fuel? The connection had never occurred to him. But when he thought about it, he was strangely relieved. “I sat back and said, ‘At least I know how I got this.’ In medical terms, I don’t know. But in my mind, I was sure.”
Three years after September 11, it’s clear that the dust and fumes from the World Trade Center wreaked silent havoc on the lungs of thousands of rescue workers. But people like John Walcott raise a far graver question: What if it isn’t just their lungs? What if it’s their kidneys, their hearts? What if 9/11 gave them cancer? And if rescue workers are already this ill, what does that mean for the rest of us? What if the first responders aren’t the only ones to get sick, but the first in a mutely expanding ring?
By Monday, lawyers for Walcott and a group of at least 600 other workers associated with the World Trade Center cleanup—cops, firefighters, sanitation workers, Transportation Department workers, Con Ed and Verizon employees, and independent day laborers, among others—are expected to file a class-action lawsuit in federal court against World Trade Center developer Larry Silverstein and a number of ground-zero cleanup contractors. The same attorneys are also filing suit against the City of New York, the Port Authority, and the Environmental Protection Agency. The suits allege that dust from the 9/11 attacks made the plaintiffs sick, and seek billions of dollars in funding for medical screening and treatment and billions more in damages. (Other law firms already have similar, if more modest, cases pending against the city on behalf of similar plaintiffs.) The majority of the plaintiffs are suffering from the respiratory problems we’ve all heard so much about: asthma, sinusitis, chronic bronchitis. But others have kidney and heart problems. And at least twenty have cancers, says Walcott’s attorney David Worby, including leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease, and esophageal and thyroid cancer. Two have died.
If it seems a bit surprising to be talking about cancer so soon after the attacks, consider what we’re now learning about the people who helped clean up the pile: In a study of first responders released last Thursday, doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital’s WTC Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program found that nearly three-quarters of the 1,138 subjects they surveyed experienced new or exacerbated respiratory problems while working at ground zero; half had respiratory ailments that persisted for an average of eight months after their cleanup work had ended. The doctors have seen persistent sinusitis, chronic throat irritation, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), reactive-airways syndrome, and asthma. Then there’s “the Cough,” that infamous World Trade Center cough, which rescue workers once wore like a badge of honor, because it proved they were there. Few of them probably imagined they’d still be stuck with it today. “My tonsils look like strawberries—that’s a quote from my doctor,” says John Graham, an EMT and one of the screening program’s first patients. “They’re red and pitted with burns.”
“We were dumbfounded by how many people were sick, and how sick they were, and how sick they still are,” says Robin Herbert, co-director of the screening program. The Sinai doctors haven’t seen an uptick in cancer rates, she says. “But given that we’ve been surprised by how sick people are—badly surprised—and given that people sustained massive exposures to a mix of toxins with unknown health effects, I’m frankly very concerned about cancer.”