9/11 Junk Science

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This piece first appeared in the New York Post.

On Friday, the judge in the Ground Zero health-claims case tossed out the recent settlement agreement, citing concerns that the deal wasn't fair to plaintiffs.

Yet the fact remains that there is no credible evidence in the medical literature that exposure to Ground Zero dust can cause any chronic disease or condition. That is, the central claim in the suits has no real scientific basis.

Some claim that only a few days of exposure at the World Trade Center site caused chronic lung disease and even cancer -- but this is contrary to everything we know about epidemiology.

The settlement was negotiated between lawyers for some 10,000 plaintiffs claiming injury or potential injury from their time at Ground Zero and attorneys for the city, its contractors and The WTC Captive Insurance Co., the federally-created insurer for the cleanup. The agreement would have paid out about $650 million (with lawyers getting perhaps a third of the cash). But the judge suggested this isn't enough. Meanwhile, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan/Queens) and others want the feds to pay out another $10 billion.

There is no good evidence that this huge payout is warranted -- only shoddy science and politicians eager to sign on to a popular cause.

James E. Tyrrell Jr., chief counsel for The WTC Captive Insurance Co., notes, "The plaintiffs allege 387 different diseases or conditions, all attributable to 9/11 exposure." These include multiple forms of cancer, skin ailments, hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, asbestosis and asthma. Yes, exposure to the dust could have aggravated an existing case of asthma, but not caused it in the first place.

The plaintiffs just don't have science on their side. Columbia University pulmonologist Dr. Kenneth Prager observes that this type of exposure has never even been shown to cause many of the ailments alleged in the suits. For example, "There is no scientific validity to the claim that asbestosis is a result of 9/11 exposure."

But a handful of scientists with an activist agenda keep trying to make the minimal evidence for the dust causing diseases sound more powerful than it is.

For example, a recent study from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine claimed that 9/11 police officers might be at higher risk of heart disease. It was a classic case of data-dredging by those trying to find a disease on behalf of plaintiffs.

The study relied on subjects who were self-selected -- that is, the people who came in were the very class of people who may be suing. The researchers then compared the results from these "volunteers" to the general population -- without, the lead researcher herself admitted, allowing for the possibility that NYPD cops may already have a higher risk of heart disease. Even then, they found no increase in illness -- just an elevated rate in a single measure (of many that they examined) that's predictive of future disease.

Yet the media was still all too eager to play up this unscientific junk. Reporter Steven Reinberg claimed on BusinessWeek.com that the "results add to growing evidence that exposure to the collapse of the World Trade Center was the cause of health problems." He added, "Other studies have linked lung damage, asthma and post-traumatic stress disorder to the event, the researchers noted."

But the source for many of these other claims is the Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine, also located at Mt. Sinai -- an ally of labor unions from its founding. It claims that 85 percent of the 70,000 people it studied from the Ground Zero area are suffering respiratory problems.

The center did groundbreaking work under its founder -- but has since dedicated itself to scaring people about trace levels of transient exposures to environmental chemicals. Selikoff's successor as its head, Dr. Phil Landrigan, has long partnered with compensation-seeking unions and served as an expert witness for trial lawyers.

Extensive programs, including monitoring and care, are already available for those claiming 9/11-linked illness. (And the Obama administration recently doubled the funding.) But to many, such as Rep. Maloney, much more is needed. Her bill would allow alleged victims to simply apply for cash -- opening up the floodgates to those who have no hope of proving their case in court.

In defense of her bill, Maloney points to "dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies" showing injuries from "toxins at Ground Zero." But the studies she cites are generally published in journals that exist to create such claims, but lack credibility in the broad scientific arena.

Ironically, her bill is named after Det. James Zadroga, whose name made headlines when the New Jersey medical examiner was persuaded to link his death to 9/11, a first. But later review by New York City's medical examiner found that his death was associated with the misuse of painkilling drugs, not 9/11 dust.

Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), who chairs a subcommittee with jurisdiction over much of Maloney's bill, told me that the legislation "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 turned out he wasn't sent to the site until late December and served fewer than twenty shifts.

There is simply no evidence that exposure to "toxic dust" at Ground Zero was responsible for any of the chronic or progressive illnesses alleged by the claimants and their lawyers. The drive to "compensate" them may seem like the decent thing to do for the heroes of the 9/11 cleanup; in fact, it's simply a push for a huge transfer of funds from sympathetic American taxpayers to activists, unions and lawyers.