Help Running Out for 9/11 First Responders?

Illustration of legal cases for asbestos and mesothelioma

It has been two years since Congress passed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. President Obama signed the Act into law on January 2, 2012. The law provides health care and other compensation to the growing number of 9/11 first responders who are gravely ill from exposure to Ground Zero toxins.

The first compensation payments — to 15 people — began in January 2013. But a few weeks ago, administrators of the $2.8 billion compensation fund released an annual report that showed that out of a backlog of 55,000 requests for help, final decisions have been made on all of 112 claims. The surviving first responders and their families are frustrated, to say the least.

There is no question that the health of thousands of one-time September 11 heroes has been damaged, and the Zadroga Act is helping some of them. For example, this past September, CNN reported that “About 1,140 people have been certified to receive cancer treatment under the WTC Health Program” established by the Act. The health program is separate from the compensation fund.

According to a report issued earlier in 2013, 9/11 first responders have a 15 percent increased cancer risk overall. However, the increased risks of some specific cancers are much higher. For example, the number of thyroid cancers among Ground Zero workers is 239 percent higher than what one would expect in a similar population.

Cancers are still being diagnosed, and researchers are still discovering other effects of the toxic soup at Ground Zero. Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City has been monitoring about 30,000 first responders and now is finding evidence of kidney damage. But the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act will pay out all of its funds by 2017. If Congress does not renew it, what happens to the responders who are diagnosed after that?

A recent Long Island Newsday article focused on the more than 2,300 asbestos workers who were called to the still-smoldering World Trade Center site to remove toxic dust from surrounding buildings. No one knows exactly how much asbestos was released into the air when the World Trade Center towers collapsed, but “several tons” is a safe guess.

Exposure to asbestos can lead to the mesothelioma. But mesothelioma has an unusually long “incubation” rate. Often it doesn’t develop for 20 to 40 years after exposure. The asbestos workers fear that there will be no compensation fund for them if they are diagnosed with the deadly lung disease.

Many of these workers already suffer from breathing and stomach problems common to the first responders. Some of the workers who were hired after the terrorist attacks were not properly equipped or trained. Others did not take the precautions they should have because they were being told —falsely, it turned out— that the air was safe to breathe.

The several thousand tons of dust released when the World Trade Center towers collapsed was thick with lead, mercury, dioxins and many other dangerous substances as well as asbestos. There were substances released into the air known to cause heart, liver, and nervous system damage as well as cancer.

Government authorities knew what was in the air all along, but workers and residents were assured the air was safe to breath even if it made their eyes burn. Perhaps the authorities wanted to avoid panic. It took several weeks, plus some “undercover” work by local politicians, activists, and reporters, to find the truth about the air. And by then, most of the damage was done.

The Ground Zero workers may be frustrated by Zadroga Act administration, but it was a challenge to get it passed at all. The Act — named for James Zadroga, one of the first people believed to have died from 9/11-related disease — was blocked time and time again by Republicans in the House and Senate.

In mid-December 2011, after a Senate Republican filibuster had stopped a vote on the bill once again, comedian Jon Stewart dedicated an episode of his Daily Show television program to shaming the politicians stopping the bill. Public reaction was swift, and finally Republicans allowed a trimmed-down version the bill to come to a vote, and it passed just before Christmas, 2011. Stewart may have to do another program on the Zadroga Act to make sure it doesn’t sputter to a close too soon.