NEW YORK - Call it compassionate, even political. But ... scientific? Several experts say there's no hard evidence to support the federal government's declaration this month that 50 kinds of cancer could be caused by exposure to World Trade Center dust.
The decision could help hundreds of people get payouts from a multibillion-dollar World Trade Center health fund to repay those ailing after they breathed in toxic dust created by the collapsing twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
But scientists say there is little research to prove that exposure to the toxic dust plume caused even one kind of cancer. And many acknowledge the payouts to cancer patients could take money away from those with illnesses more definitively linked to Sept. 11, like asthma and laryngitis.
"To imagine that there is strong evidence about any cancer resulting from 9/11 is naive in the extreme," said Donald Berry, a biostatistics professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Yet this month, Dr. John Howard, who heads the federal agency that researches workplace illnesses, added scores of common and rare cancers to a list that had previously included just 12 ailments caused by dust exposure.
Lung, skin, breast and thyroid cancer were among those added; of the most common types, only prostate cancer was excluded.
Howard's decision, based on an advisory panel's recommendation, will go through a public comment period and additional review before it's final.
Roughly 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will get cancer in a lifetime. The U.S. government has been cautious about labeling things as cancer-causing agents, choosing to wait for multiple studies to confirm and reconfirm. The famed 1964 surgeon general's report tying smoking to lung cancer came out more than a decade after studies showed the link.
"This was a really unique exposure," said Elizabeth Ward, an American Cancer Society vice president and researcher who headed the panel that advised Howard. The panel decided it was likely that people could get cancer and that it was better to offer help now than when it was too late.