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The Great 9/11 Dust Debate

Science finds no link between WTC dust and cancer. Politicians want to pay for treatment anyway.

Jeff Stier
August 9, 2011

Federal scientists exhibited rare bravery this summer when they stated that there was no evidence the dust kicked up in the World Trade Center attacks caused cancer. But instead of applauding the exhaustively thorough review of the available data by the Centers for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)—the first of a series—members of New York's congressional delegation and other interest groups are trashing the science of the very federal researchers they appointed to do the analysis.

At stake are billions of dollars from the controversial James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which set aside money for 9/11 rescue workers and survivors with health claims. The Zadroga Act allows people who worked, lived, or attended school near Ground Zero to claim compensation for a broad range of diseases, from asthma to depression, without a requirement to demonstrate that the diseases were caused by dust from the terror site. But the bill, which came with a hefty $4.3 billion price tag, passed only after proponents agreed to the utterly reasonable requirement that compensation for cancer be justified by a causal link. 

The power of parochial politics trumps science, however, for Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and Peter King (R-N.Y.), authors of the Zadroga bill, who said in a statement, "we are disappointed that [NIOSH] administrator Dr. John Howard has not yet found sufficient evidence to support covering cancers."

They’ve become so caught up in bringing home federal dollars they actually seem to want there to be compelling evidence that 9/11 dust causes cancer, even though none yet exists. Either that, or despite their busy fundraising schedules, they think they know better than the federal scientists they appointed to study the complex issue.

Perhaps we should resign ourselves to the fact that politicians will inevitably root for findings that result in cash for their constituents. We should expect for more from scientists. Yet Dr. Phil Landrigan, head of a key federally funded 9/11 health program at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, isn't satisfied with the NIOSH report either.

Landrigan, who has long partnered with compensation-seeking unions and served as an expert witness for trial lawyers, has distorted 9/11 science in the past. Abandoning objectivity for advocacy, he and his researchers have completed self-selecting studies which ensure that people who are ill participate in far greater numbers than people who aren’t, suggesting a link that simply isn’t there. Now, Landrigan is promising to flood NIOSH with more of his distorted and data-mining "evidence."

Any sick or dying patient appeals to our most human sympathies and 9/11 first-responders are heroes in the grandest sense of the word. These men and women risked their lives to save others on the day our country was attacked and they deserve the highest honors. But that doesn't mean that every one of them who got cancer in the last decade was a victim of 9/11 dust.

Headlines alleging that "federal aid won't cover 9/11-related cancer” are simply off the mark. The feds simply found no cancer link, but remain open to allowing aid if a causal relationship is later discovered—just as the law requires.

Science, not emotion, should guide officials in determining the cause of any cancers, and thus whether federal funds from the Zadroga Act will cover their medical expenses. As the cohort of heroes grows older, we should expect to see more cases, since cancer increases in prevalence with age.

In the meantime, the politicians should get out of the way and allow the science to prevail, no matter how at odds it is with their political agenda. Pressuring scientists for different results stinks of exploitation of the country's appropriate goodwill towards New York after 9/11.

Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and heads its Risk Analysis Division. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffAStier. This column first appeared at Reason.com.




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