9/11 First Responders Face Uncertain Future as Cancer Continues to Plague Victims

Sixteen years on, and for some, memories of the deadliest terrorist attack in world history are as vivid as ever.

The unprecedented damage from September 11 lives on in lingering economic ruin, the war on terror, life-altering physical and mental injuries, and most painfully, emotional wreckage from the loss of almost 3,000 innocent lives.

Most of those who died in World Trade Center buildings or surrounding areas were civilians and financial district workers trapped and struck by tumbling debris as they prepared for a day of work. Scores of first responders also perished in their brave attempts to rescue people. Still others, including civilians, survived or dedicated hundreds of hours to rescue, recovery, and cleanup efforts. But in the last camp are those who risked their lives to save others or gave their all to help pick up the pieces, only to die years later.

Exposure to toxic chemicals, including carbon monoxide, crystalline silica, and known carcinogens such as asbestos, has been a major health crisis that first responders and firefighters have fought ever since. These people, already suffering trauma from that day’s tragic events, are also suffering and even dying at the hands of poisonous substances. Within 5 years, in fact, the number of those killed by exposure will exceed the number of those who died during the attacks.

Incomprehensible though it is, 9/11 is still ruining a growing number of lives. Are we doing all we can to stop this?

Devastation to Last a Lifetime

In the days after the attacks, the aim at Ground Zero – known by rescue personnel as “the pile” – was to rescue the living and recover the dead. The 1.5 million tons of toxic debris that transformed the streets of New York City was the least of anyone’s concerns.

But 1 of those toxic substances was asbestos, a lethal mineral once popular for use in building construction. As the North and South towers of the WTC fell, the crash released a poisonous cloud of toxin-containing dust and ash. This cloud shrouded Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Long Island Sound, entering homes and offices, sticking to clothes and interiors, and making its way undetected into people’s bodies.

The danger of asbestos is common knowledge. When airborne, its miniscule particles are health risks in any capacity. Asbestos is known as a “silent killer,” the cause of debilitating and fatal diseases. This was a mineral that had already killed thousands of people through mesothelioma, a condition caused exclusively by asbestos exposure for which no cure exists. But that didn’t stop these brave men and women from rushing into a chemical nightmare unprotected, putting aside their own health to save others.

The Bill That Changed It All

On January 6, 2006, a New York Police Department Officer called James Zadroga died of a respiratory disease aged 34. He became the first NYPD officer whose death was ruled a direct result of the Ground Zero cleanup.

This tragic death led to the birth of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2011 after a 5-year political battle in Congress. The Act sought to provide medical benefits and other financial aid for 9/11 survivors sickened or dying from cancers and illnesses linked to the attacks through the World Trade Center Health Program and Victim Compensation Fund (VCF). In October 2015, the Act expired, and was finally extended days before Christmas to guarantee survivors lifelong care.

Can the Program Help?

Today, the number of heroes certified sick as a result of 9/11 is estimated to be 50,000. Over 1,000 have already died. Respiratory and digestive disorders are among the most common causes of death, but cancer diagnoses have multiplied. And sadly, the so-called “next wave” of illnesses hasn’t fully surfaced yet. Post-traumatic stress disorder is considered a precursor to dementia; mesothelioma is a cancer whose symptoms remain dormant until up to 20-50 years after asbestos exposure.

For the 77,500 people enrolled, and others who join in the future, the World Trade Center Health Program is a life-changer. The Program helps to pay for medical monitoring and care, which would be an impossible task for many – especially cancer patients, whose medical costs often reach a quarter of a million dollars. The WTC Health Program also funds medical research to identify and treat new WTC-related health conditions, and the VCF has awarded more than $3 Billion to claimants.

Firefighters, law enforcement officers, paramedics, area workers, students, residents, and volunteers, both young and old at the time of 9/11, who inhaled poisoned air in their efforts to save lives from senseless terrorism – these are the people we should think about this year. By supporting these efforts to help first responders, we can at least limit the number of years taken from their life spans as thanks for their unrivaled bravery.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: September 28, 2020