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Awareness // September 20, 2017 MAAC Staff

How the World Trade Center Health Program Can Help Mesothelioma Patients

Last week, the nation honored the anniversary of the tragic events that occurred on September 11, 2001. In the aftermath, countless first responders, police, firefighters, and civilians raced to rescue other lives and later begin the enormous cleanup efforts. As a result of the buildings collapse, there was debris and toxins dispersed in a widespread area of New York City. Now, 16 years later, people are beginning to better understand all the health risks the first responders faced, as well as anyone residing or working in the general area of the buildings site.

Asbestos dust was among these dangerous hazards as its airborne particles spread throughout a large area of the city, putting millions of people at risk. This toxic dust also contained levels of other carcinogens, such as lead, silica and cadmium. Other toxins in the dust are also known to trigger other debilitating illnesses, including liver and nervous system deterioration.

Since then, about 60 types of cancer have also been linked to Ground Zero, including mesothelioma. Because of the latency period of the disease, which can be anywhere from 10 to 50 years, researchers worry that the city may see a surge in cases in the coming years. Thankfully, first responders and residents have an opportunity for annual health evaluations and treatment for any diseases incurred from Ground Zero through the World Trade Center (WTC) Health Program.

What is the WTC Health Program?

The WTC Health Program was created in 2010 through the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which was a law created to aid volunteers, first responders and survivors of 9/11 with health monitoring and financial assistance. The health program was an amendment to the original law, meant to provide testing and treatment for those facing long-term health problems as a result of hazardous debris and dust. The services provided by the program are administered by the National Institute of Safety and Health (NIOSH), under the Centers for Disease Control.

Anyone who was a first responder, recovery or cleanup worker, and volunteers who helped in the aftermath at the World Trade Center, Pentagon or the crash site in Pennsylvania is eligible for care under the program. Annual medical monitoring and treatment for any health conditions resulting from hazardous exposure from the buildings’ collapse are covered under the WTC Health program for these individuals, as well as anyone who resided or worked in the vicinity of the World Trade Centers for a number of months after the events.

In addition to providing this free healthcare, the WTC Health Program is focused on conducting research to better understand the health conditions that arise from such disasters. With program members’ permission, they also collect mental and physical health data to further analyze and comprehend the long-term effects of events like this.

The program also actively helps raise awareness for those who may be eligible for the program with community outreach and education. Researchers realize so many people don’t connect any health issues they may be experiencing with their exposure to hazards at and around Ground Zero. Nonspecific symptoms like persistent coughing could even be a sign of a more serious cancer or disease, like mesothelioma. As such, the program workers strive to extend their reach and get in front of those who may not realize their eligibility or health needs.

“It is important for experts to directly communicate the dangers of asbestos to the community at large since the government and EPA have failed in this regard. One only has to look at the safety failures in the aftermath of 9/11,” Dr. Raja Flores, a leading mesothelioma expert, recently told the MAA Center.

The EPA and government were both criticized following 9/11 for downplaying the severity of the poor air quality at Ground Zero and the health issues Americans could possibly face as a result. Hopefully now with better awareness and proactive efforts through the WTC Health Program, more Americans will recognize the toxins they faced and the potential health conditions they may develop.

WTC Health Program and Mesothelioma

The WTC Health Program has a number of conditions that it covers, including many kinds of cancer. The list even includes instances of rare cancer, such as mesothelioma, and allows those affected to even submit their disease for consideration of coverage if it’s not already.

As of June 2017, the CDC reports 5,898 responders have a cancer diagnosis linked with 9/11 in addition to 1,064 survivors. Thousands of other first responders and survivors are suffering from other conditions like asthma and other respiratory disorders. These numbers are expected to continue to grow.

With annual monitoring for first responders and volunteers, the program can have an impact on early detection for mesothelioma, which is known for being difficult to diagnose. After exposure to asbestos, it can take 10 to even 50 years for symptoms to begin to show. Symptoms may often begin as shortness of breath, chest pain or a cough, which can also be linked to more common ailments like the flu. As such, misdiagnosis in these cases is very common.

These factors coupled together can also mean a patient isn’t properly diagnosed until the mesothelioma has already developed to a later stage. As the cancer progresses, less curative treatment options are available and many patients may only have the option for palliative care. Mesothelioma has a grim prognosis, on average only about 12 to 21 months.

The WTC Health Program can help diagnose this dire disease earlier, especially with the knowledge of the asbestos dust in the air and potential exposure. Early detection is the best way to improve a patient’s prognosis, and the program can make that possible for first responders and survivors facing an asbestos-related disease like mesothelioma.

In addition to potentially diagnosing the disease early on, the program will also cover treatment expenses for mesothelioma and other conditions covered by the law. Considering the rising costs of cancer treatment, this coverage can mitigate a huge financial burden for these patients.

There is a catch for this aspect, however. Patients must be treated or receive their medicine from a provider and pharmacy that is a member organization of the program to be fully reimbursed. The concept is similar to how insurance plans work with in-network or out-of-network doctors and clinics, except in this instance costs will not be covered in even partial amounts for providers that aren’t connected to the program.

There are many clinics around the nation that can provide monitoring for any first responders or former residents no longer residing in New York City or the areas of the other attack sites. New York City also has many options available for monitoring, health evaluations and any necessary treatment.

Overall, the WTC Health Program can make a huge difference for all of those potentially impacted by the hazardous effects of the 9/11 attacks. Over 70,000 Americans are currently enrolled, and enrollment remains open for any other survivors, first responders or volunteers who did not previously enroll in preceding programs. Hopefully, through this program and other resources, the country will stop seeing a rising number of deaths from 9/11-related health conditions and everyone affected can get the help they need.