The forgotten victims of September 11 — suffering from Ground Zero toxins

The whole country was watching when the World Trade Center towers collapsed and took 3,000 lives in an instant. But in the years since 9/11, far fewer have witnessed as the attacks have slowly claimed the health and well being of thousands more.

 A massive cloud of toxic dust reportedly as caustic as drain cleaner engulfed lower Manhattan after the towers collapsed. That poisonous dust covered rescue workers and settled into the homes of lower Manhattan residents; in downtown schools, on playgrounds and parks; and in the lungs of tens of thousands of people.

In the days and weeks after 9/11, brave first responders sifted through dusty wreckage to help with the recovery effort. They labored day and night under treacherous and toxic conditions, often wearing little or no protective gear. Countless other people returned to dust-covered homes, offices, and schools in the days and weeks after the collapse and engaged in clean-up efforts of their own.

A recent New York City Health Department study shows that rescue workers who toiled on the toxic debris piles of Ground Zero have an asthma incidence rate 12 times higher than normal. Serious respiratory problems, including the lung scarring disease “sarcoidosis,” and the ubiquitous “Trade Center cough” have also been well documented among those who spent time around the tower debris after 9/11.

A recent Department of Health and Human Services document reveals that the number of people with 9/11-related illnesses is only increasing. Over 71,000 people have reported to the World Trade Center Health Registry that they were near Ground Zero in the days following 9/11. Many have serious concerns about their health. More than 6,500 responders are currently being treated for 9/11-related health problems through the federally funded World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment program, and another 500 to 1,000 additional responders are signing up each month.

By some reports, 9/11 ailments are becoming more severe, the projected cost of treating these illnesses is surging, and current federal treatment funding levels are likely inadequate.

We have long asserted that this national health emergency requires a strong federal response. Unfortunately, progress over the past six years can best be measured in small steps rather than giant leaps as critical needs continue to go unmet. Certainly, we’ve had our victories: the restoration of $125 million to help care for the sick and injured, the appointment of a federal 9/11 health czar and the first-ever inclusion of funding in the president’s budget for monitoring and treatment. And we continue to work across party lines fighting to provide health monitoring for all who were exposed, adequate funding to treat all who are sick or injured, and a comprehensive federal plan to ensure that anyone impacted by 9/11 gets the care he or she deserves.

We were relieved to learn this summer that the administration had finally begun work on its 9/11 healthcare plan. While the plan is incomplete and past due, it’s a start toward meeting our country’s moral obligation to care for the forgotten victims of 9/11. But we also believe the federal government can and should be doing more.

That’s why we introduced the Maloney-Nadler-Fossella 9/11 Health and Compensation Act (H.R. 3543). Our bill would ensure that everyone made sick by or exposed to Ground Zero toxins receives the medical monitoring and treatment they deserve. It shouldn’t matter who you are — a first responder, clean-up worker, lower Manhattan resident, area worker or schoolchild — everyone who was exposed to 9/11 toxins should have access to health monitoring, and everyone who has become sick as a result of their exposure to 9/11 toxins deserves access to medical treatment.

The 9/11 Health and Compensation Act would build upon the expertise of the Centers of Excellence, which are currently providing high-quality care to thousands of responders, and establish a new, comprehensive World Trade Center Health Program. Our bill would also reopen the Victim Compensation Fund and rightfully provide compensation to responders who weren’t sick when the original deadline passed.

Six years of waiting is long enough. Congress should act now before the 9/11 death toll rises any further. If any issue begs Washington to put aside bipartisan bickering and help citizens in need, it’s 9/11. The brave first responders who rushed to Ground Zero in the wake of 9/11, and the thousands of innocent area residents who fatefully found themselves in the midst of a toxic health crisis, deserve no less.

Maloney is a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Nadler is a member of Judiciary and Fossella is a member of Energy and Commerce.


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