Forgotten victims of 9/11 are developing cancer at alarming rates

Forgotten victims of 9/11 are developing cancer at alarming rates
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Soon after the 9/11 attacks, survivors returned to downtown Manhattan. The air didn’t look right, it didn’t smell right, and it didn’t feel right, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it was safe.

Some of those who returned were just children. They are young adults now, and have scattered to all corners of the world as people do in early adulthood. Tragically, many are now learning that they did not escape 9/11 unscathed.

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A cancer cluster is emerging in lower Manhattan that has victimized former school children and teachers. Doctors from the WTC Health Program have certified that these cancers were caused by exposure to the toxic dust from the World Trade Center collapse.

Until now, nobody has been advocating for the children of 9/11.

We first began to understand the long-term health effects of 9/11 because of my client, NYPD Detective James Zadroga. Detective Zadroga sat in my office, tethered to an oxygen tank. He was so weak that Tyler-Ann, his 4-year-old daughter, had to change his tank for him.

Knowing that he was close to death at the age of 34, he asked that an autopsy be performed after his death to determine whether his pulmonary fibrosis was a result of his time at the World Trade Center site.

Detective Zadroga’s autopsy revealed that his lungs were full of ground glass and noxious chemicals. The WTC dust that he breathed in contained asbestos, benzene, jet fuel and other carcinogens. Detective Zadroga’s death was the first to be officially linked to the toxins present at the World Trade Center.

New York City firefighters and police officers who responded that day, and/or worked on the debris pile afterwards, lost an average of 12 year’s lung capacity. They were not the only ones breathing in that air. Residents, office workers, construction workers removing the debris, and students and teachers were all exposed to the same toxins.

Over two dozen former students and teachers have been certified by the WTC Health Program with 9/11-related cancers. They have come forward and registered as part of the federal 9/11 Zadroga Health and Compensation Act.

They were enrolled or teaching at Stuyvesant High School, Pace University or one of the 12 other New York City public schools south of Canal Street in 2001. Additionally, dozens of former custodians, administrators and other school staff have also become sick.

All they did wrong was trust the EPA and return to school.

Twenty-eight-year-old women should not have breast cancer. Thirty-year-old men should not have bladder cancer. Yet that is precisely what we are seeing.

Tragically, in the past year alone, 168 responders have had their deaths linked to WTC exposure. Over 1,700 FDNY firefighters have been diagnosed with WTC-linked cancers since the attacks.

I fear that this is only the tip of the iceberg. There were approximately 400,000 students, teachers, residents, office workers, responders and volunteers in Lower Manhattan on 9/11, and during the eight months following the attacks, when the air was thick with carcinogens.

Unfortunately, only 80,000 have registered with the WTC Health Program, which provides free annual medical screenings and health care to those certified with 9/11-related illnesses. Should these screenings detect cancers or other illnesses, survivors are eligible for compensation and long-term health care.

With all of these resources available, why have so few people registered? For one, many who have yet to become ill only remember the EPA’s false pronouncement that the air was safe, and they aren’t aware that doctors have linked their illnesses to their exposure. Others are unaware that they are at risk.

Many of these survivors have left the NYC area, settling into parts of the country that do have WTC Health Programs, but they don’t realize that they are entitled to the benefits created by the government.  

Thousands of people exposed in the wake of 9/11, including many who were just children, still don’t know there is help available to them. It is crucial that survivors take advantage of the monitoring program. When it comes to cancer, early detection is often the difference between life and death.

Congress recognized the EPA’s mistake. It did the right thing by creating the Nationwide WTC Health Program to provide monitoring for those exposed. It also established the Zadroga Victim Compensation Fund for those who are sick and the families of those who have died.

Sept. 11 was the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil. The 9/11 Community, including those who were children at that time, continues to be afflicted. It is heartbreaking when sick people miss the deadline to register because they are unaware of the benefits afforded by the government. It would be unconscionable to fail these young men and women again.

Michael Barasch is an attorney and managing partner at Barasch McGarry Salzman & Penson. His law firm has over 36 years of experience advocating for the rights of first responders nationwide.