Tuesday, September 6th, 2011
We are approaching the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. This Sunday the nation will solemnly remember those who lost their lives that day, including 343 New York City firefighters and 23 police officers.
However, you may not hear about the 345 firefighters and 45 police officers, first responders to the disaster, who have since died of cancer. This is according to the Fealgood Foundation, which is dedicated to addressing the unique health problems of the surviving 9/11 heroes. By this calculation, more firefighters and police officers who rushed to the disaster that day have died of cancer than died in the collapse of the towers.
A study published in the Lancet last week showed that New York City firefighters who did rescue and recovery work in the burning ruins of the World Trade Center are 19 percent more likely to have cancer than other firefighters. There also are reports that cancer is taking a toll on Red Cross workers and others who volunteered at the site.
Many types of cancer have been reported, and given its long incubation period of 20 to 50 years, cases of mesothelioma will almost certainly be among them eventually. However, cancer is not an illness covered by the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. This Act, which eventually passed after months of congressional infighting, provides funds to treat people suffering health problems from caused by the 9/11 attacks, but cancer treatment is not included.
Romain Pelleray of Agence France-Presse interviewed John Devlin, 50, a heavy equipment operator who worked on “the pile” for over ten months. “In 2009, he was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer. Haggling with insurance carriers, hospital billing departments, and state officials in charge of worker’s compensation has become a regular part of his struggle to survive.”
When the World Trade Center towers collapsed, materials in the building were pulverized into a massive cloud of dust. We know now that the dust was made up of glass fibers, asbestos, hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxins, and many other dangerous substances. However, government officials at the federal, state, and city level told the public the air was safe to breath and failed to provide proper air filters for those working at Ground Zero.
Only a year later, a physician coined the term “World Trade Center cough” to describe the wheezing, coughing first responders who sought treatment for asthmatic symptoms. Respiratory illnesses remain the most common health problems caused by the dust of the WTC for residents of lower Manhattan as well as workers. It was found that the highly alkaline dust had damaged the body’s usual defense mechanisms against breathing in particulates. In the months following the 9/11 attacks more than 40,000 people assisted in the rescue and recovery work in lower Manhattan.
The federal health compensation bill stalled in Congress for many months. The original version of the bill had to be cut down to pass the House. Then it was filibustered by Senate Republicans, who held the bill hostage in exchange for extending tax cuts to the wealthy. But after the tax cuts were extended, Senate Republicans continued to hold up the bill. Only after comedian Jon Stewart of The Daily Show ridiculed Republicans for refusing to help 9/11 heroes did the bill finally passed. It was signed into law in January of this year. But now the one-time heroes face another long fight to get cancer added to the list of diseases covered by the law.