Day 59 // “Dust Lady”


In late August, a New Jersey woman named Marcy Borders became one of the 8 million individuals worldwide to die from cancer each year. Borders was best known for standing among the rubble after the World Trade Center collapsed on September 11, an image that eventually landed her the nickname “Dust Lady.” The mass of grey dust covering her body from head to toe—covering, even, the string of pearls around her neck—catapulted Borders to instant recognition.

It was also, just maybe, what ultimately led to her death just last month.

After the Twin Towers fell, a layer of dust and debris coated Manhattan. Hidden among that cloudy air, inhaled by survivors and first responders alike, were carcinogenic particles and chemicals—asbestos, fiberglass, mercury, and benzene, among others. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that 300 to 400 tons of asbestos fibers were used to construct the World Trade Center.

Still, just a week after the attack, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told the public there was no long-term danger to their health. But then people began to fall ill.

In 2002, Dr. David Prezant of the New York City Fire Department coined the term “World Trade Center cough” after 9/11 firefighters started to develop chronic respiratory illnesses. From 2001 to 2004, the federal government established a Victim Compensation Fund for all those physically harmed or killed as a result of the tragedy. In 2011, 10 years after the attacks, Congress reactivated the fund via the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act—named after an NYPD officer and first responder who died of respiratory disease—in addition to establishing a new World Trade Center Health Program. Two years later, officials finally added 50 different types of cancer to the list of diseases eligible for compensation.

The WTC Health Program is set to expire next month, and the Victim Compensation Fund is set to expire in October 2016, unless Congress decides to pledge more money. Not only would an end to funding mean an end to 9/11-related cancer treatment and compensation, but it would discontinue research as well—just as scientists and doctors are on the verge of finding a definitive empirical link between the incident and the illness.

In one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind to date, the New York City Health Department found no clear association between cancer and the debris at the World Trade Center site. The study, published in 2012 in the Journal of American Medical Association, observed 55,778 New York residents who were present at the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks and had enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Registry. The work, however, did not rule out an association. “The presence of carcinogenic agents raises the possibility that exposure to the WTC environment could eventually lead to cancers,” the researchers wrote.

One of the study’s major caveats was it couldn’t account for the latency period of certain cancers—the time it takes for the illness to develop following exposure. The gap between onset and detection was the driving logic behind the initial decision to add cancer to the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act in June 2012.

Fourteen years after the attacks, researchers are closer than ever to arriving at that answer. In 2013, Environmental Health Perspectives published a study that found more conclusive evidence of a link between cancer and 9/11. Of the 20,984 participants—all World Trade Center rescue and recovery workers—552 were diagnosed with cancer between 9/11 and December 2008. Those who had been highly exposed to carcinogens and pollutants were more likely to be diagnosed.

As of last year, there have been more than 2,500 reported cancer cases among World Trade Center rescuers and responders. These cancers span the full gamut—thyroid, prostate, lung, pancreatic, leukemia, multiple myeloma. The list goes on but the focus is on the big three: esophageal cancer, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.

By 2014, the Victim Compensation Fund had awarded a sum of $50.5 million to a mere 115 cancer claimants (though case reviews are ongoing). Then there are those like Marcy Borders. Last fall she told The Jersey Journal she suspected her stomach cancer was related to 9/11. But she also said she was struggling to pay her bills for chemotherapy treatment—suggesting that Borders might not have been awarded victim compensation during her lifetime, and that even if she did receive some, it clearly wasn’t enough.

Many lawmakers are pushing for extended, long-term compensation for victims. But while the government can vote to extend compensation, its willingness to channel more money toward early cancer detection is likely contingent on researchers confirming a link to 9/11. In the end, New Yorkers exposed to the World Trade Center debris are faced with an awful predicament: Only time will tell if certain cancers manifest as a result of 9/11, but if there is indeed a link, time for these survivors to catch their cancer early is running out.

Marcy Borders is a fitting example of a cancer patient whose fate came too quickly, but the unfortunate reality is that Borders may be an exception. The real mass of 9/11-related cancer deaths is probably yet to come.

9/11 – We shall never forget.

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