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The world watched in horror as two planes crashed into the World Trade Center during the unforgettable terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. As the buildings smoldered, firefighters, first responders, and volunteers who rushed to save the thousands of innocent people inside and around the buildings were blanketed in dust.

Our first and obvious concern was for the injured and missing, not about the plume of dust.

Jon Stewart, former Daily Show host, will again be using his voice to lobby Congress this week for a permanent extension of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which is set to expire at the end of September. The halls of Congress will be filled with firefighters, police officers, and first responders who now suffer from illnesses, including mesothelioma and other forms of cancers, caused by their heroic work at Ground Zero. More than 72,000 responders and survivors from every Congressional district are enrolled in health programs funded by this legislation.

The Air Was Not Safe to Breathe

The 1.8m tons of debris consisted of toxic substances including ground glass, lead, gypsum, and calcite and was scattered across lower Manhattan. Other pollutants include 90,000 liters of jet fuel and about 1,000 tons of asbestos.

Amidst the rubble, thousands of people inhaled and swallowed hazardous particles, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reassured residents that the air and water were safe.

However, later investigations found that the EPA had no basis for its pronouncements about air quality. A 2006 study by New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital found that around 70% of first responders and cleanup workers developed new lung problems or exacerbated existing conditions.

9/11 Toxic Dust Remains a Threat

One of the many substances in the toxic cloud was asbestos. For more than a century, asbestos exposure has been known to cause incurable diseases, including mesothelioma. Despite this knowledge, asbestos remained one of the most commonly used materials in construction, shipbuilding, and manufacturing industries until the 1980s.

During the construction of the World Trade Center Towers in the 1960s, asbestos insulating material was sprayed up to the 64th floor. A 1981 Twin Towers ad slogan read, “When life depends on it, you use asbestos.” This type of propaganda promoting the benefits of asbestos is a shocking example of how the negligent use of asbestos developed into a man-made disaster. According to the 2015 Global Burden of Disease Report, during 2013, the total number of deaths from asbestos-related diseases nearly doubled from 107,000 to 194,000. Due to the 10 – 50 year latency period between asbestos exposure and diagnosis, the full impact from 9/11 will not be felt for decades to come.

The 9/11 Injury and Death Toll Rises

Civil rights lawyer Felicia Dunn-Jones was engulfed with toxic debris as she ran from her office a block away from the World Trade Center. Five months later, Mrs. Dunn-Jones passed away from what Dr. Charles S. Hirsch, New York City’s chief medical examiner, determined to be an exposure-related illness.During the winter of 2006, James Zadroga, a highly decorated New York City Police Department officer and 9/11 hero, passed away from a respiratory disease attributed to his participation in the rescue and recovery operations.

Ms. Dunn-Jones and Detective Zadroga weren’t alone.

Since 2002, the World Trade Center Program funded by the U.S. government has medically screened more than 39,000 rescue and recovery workers and volunteers who worked at Ground Zero. The World Trade Center Health Data Center at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai has confirmed nearly 2,300 cases of cancer since 2002 for these heroic victims. An analysis of available data through 2010 shows an estimated 20% increase in cancer incidence in 9/11 rescue and recovery workers compared to the general population, with a particular increase in thyroid cancer, prostate cancer, myeloma, and leukemia.

9/11 Health, Compensation, and Justice Must Continue

Finally, in 2011 President Obama signed the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act into law. On the eve of September 11, 2012, the federal government added nearly 50 types of cancer, including mesothelioma, to the list of September 11 World Trade Center-related illnesses that are covered in the Act. Dr. John Howard, Director of The National Institute for Occupational Safety (NIOSH) said, “The publication of this final rule marks an important step in the effort to provide needed treatment and care to 9/11 responders and survivors through the WTC Health Program.”

Our nation has a moral obligation to provide health care, compensation, and justice for the 9/11 victims who have and continue to suffer from exposure to deadly chemicals during that fateful day. For those who risked their lives and survived the unimaginable, ADAO strongly urges Congress to reauthorize the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act to defend justice.