Ian Shiver / Everence
- Johnny Walker was working for the NYPD on September 11, 2001. Today, he has stage 4 colon cancer.
- Scientists studying 9/11 survivors say they have higher rates of many kinds of cancer, including breast, cervical, colon, and lung.
- Walker had his family's DNA mixed into red tattoo ink used on his arm to keep them close during treatment.
- The DNA extraction technique was developed by a company called Everence, which can turn hair, ash, grass, sand or any other material into a microencapsulated powder that tattoo artists can mix into their inks.
Retired NYPD officer Johnny Walker is living with the toxic effects of responding to the World Trade Center attack on 9/11.
As a result of the time he spent in the dangerously dusty air that circulated "on the pile" after the twin towers fell, Walker said, he's now dealing with stage 4 colon cancer, the most advanced kind. He says he spent some 400 hours in total at Ground Zero on September 11, 2001. In the days and weeks afterwards, he helped with the recovery, cleaning up rubble, filling buckets, and even digging out body parts.
Yet Walker maintains a wry sense of humor about his condition.
"That came back to bite me in the rear end," Walker said, referring to his intestinal cancer. "No pun intended."
Many 9/11 rescue workers and survivors are plagued by tumors. According to the federal World Trade Center Health Program count, more than 13,290 firefighters, cops, office workers, and children who were living in or working around downtown Manhattan have high rates of many kinds of cancer. An estimated 732 9/11 survivors with cancer have died.
This group has higher rates of roughly 70 types of cancer, including cervical, colon, and lung cancers. There have even been 15 cases of breast cancer in men, as the New York Post reported. Many of these cancer cases are likely because these workers and survivors breathed in air contaminated with asbestos, lead, mercury and other toxic substances in the days and weeks following the attack.
The bulk of the cancer cases, more than 9,400, are in first responders like Walker. His cancer has spread outside of his colon, and he has lymph node tumors pressing on internal organs near his digestive tract and pelvis. Sometimes, when he's undergoing another bi-weekly chemotherapy treatment, he likes to feel the support of his wife, kids, or a close friend.
That's when he touches a cluster of red inked tattoos on his left arm.
The ink on Walker's arm is infused with a powder that contains his loved ones' genetic material. The powder, called Everence, is essentially a bunch of tiny, plastic containers that hold individual DNA strands. Each of the plastic enclosures is about one-tenth the size of a human hair.
"I'm stuck on a machine, all by myself in there, I actually rub my arm, and I'm not by myself," Walker told Business Insider.
Putting your people in a tattoo
When a colleague told Walker about the possibility of putting genetic material into tattoos, he wasn't immediately enthusiastic about it.
"My first reaction to hearing about it was, like, 'that's creepy, I don't know about this stuff,'" he said.
But after he thought about the idea a little more, Walker decided he wanted to be able to take his family with him wherever he went.
"Wait a second," he said, "I have cancer, and there's a possibility that I might not be here that much longer."
In the spring of 2018, Walker inserted DNA from his wife, son, daughter, and a fellow NYPD officer into tattoos. His tattoo artist mixed the Everence powder into the red ink. Later, Walker added some tattoo chains to connect the tattoos.
Ian Shiver / Everence
"It's something tangible, something I can physically touch," he said.
Here are the tattoos Walker has with Everence powder:
Hilary Brueck/Business Insider
Walker said the drawings are good luck talismans like the ones the Knights Templar used to carry. Each represents something different: health, protection, or brotherhood.
A tattoo of a blade and chalice, Walker said, "is symbolic of perfect love and perfect trust." That's where he put DNA from his wife. (She also has his DNA in a tattoo around her ring finger.)
"No matter where I go in this world, if life takes me somewhere else, I'm going to have them with me," he said.
Hilary Brueck/Business Insider
Walker still wants to add to his tattoo collection, too. In June, his "cancer buddy" detective Luis Alvarez, a tireless advocate for 9/11 responders, died from complications of colorectal cancer after "one helluva rough battle" with the same cancer he has. Walker says he's now the sole remaining of a group of three officers including Alvarez who often chatted, shared experiences, and leaned on each other for support after they developed cancer. His other good friend, former sergeant Terry O'Hara, died from a 9/11-related cancer in 2017.
"I am waiting for the green light from the doctor, but more importantly, permission from my wife (lol) to get another tattoo in remembrance of my fallen brethren," he told Business Insider in an email. "Sadly, I am the last remaining one of the three, and I often wonder how much time before I get called home."
How Everence powder works
The fine, silvery powder is made from a polymer called PMMA (poly-methyl methacrylate), which you might know better in its acrylic glass form, Plexiglas. Each grain of the powder acts as a tiny plastic container that holds one strand of extracted DNA, ash, or hair. The coating is sterile and won't erode over time, so it sits under a person's skin forever.
Mathiowitz and Klitzman assert that the powder is clean and safe for implantation.
"It's a medical-grade material that is being used all over the world for many therapeutic applications," Mathiowitz said in a video on Everence's site.
Everence co-founder Patrick Duffy said in 2018 that more than 250 people had Everence tattoos. The powder has come down in price since then, and now costs $225.
The process Duffy uses to package DNA into tiny capsules also allows clients to add non-human materials into their tattoo if they want. Those materials get milled into an ultra-fine powder, then encapsulated in the same plastic polymer coating.
Everence has created tiny particles of blades of stadium grass, Harley Davidson motorcycle shards, and bits of volcanic rocks to put into Everence powder.
"Ultimately, you could really put anything that you imagine into your tattoos," Duffy said.
For people who aren't fans of tattoos, the powder can even be mixed into a clear, ink-free solution, then invisibly injected into the skin. It's the same process, sans ink, but the powder still sits in you forever.
Update: This story was originally published on September 11, 2018. It has been updated with the latest cancer and death counts, as well as news from Walker.