Congress could add to risks facing firefighters, first responders

The collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11 claimed nearly 3,000 lives. It also created what a panel of noted public health experts called “the largest acute environmental disaster that ever has befallen New York City.”

According to the panel assembled by the National Institute of Environmental and Health Sciences, the plume of toxic substances that enveloped lower Manhattan and areas beyond was laced with 1,000-to-2,000 tons of pulverized asbestos, putting hundreds of thousands of emergency responders, firefighters, workers, volunteers and residents at risk of inhaling it. All told, the World Trade Center Health Registry estimates that more than 400,000 people were exposed to asbestos and an array of other hazardous materials. More than 90,000 were rescue and recovery workers.

{mosads}The firefighters at Ground Zero were already at heightened risk from asbestos. According to a new study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters are twice as likely as the general population to contract mesothelioma, an incurable malignancy of the lungs and other organs caused by asbestos exposure. The NIOSH team reviewed mortality and cancer incidence for 30,000 firefighters in Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco from 1950 and 2009 and found a direct link between their jobs and several types of cancer, including mesothelioma. Researchers took special note of the elevated risk of mesothelioma because almost all buildings and homes built before 1980 contain asbestos, which is often released into the air by fires.

The symptoms of asbestos disease, including mesothelioma and asbestosis, often take decades to develop. Because so much of it was airborne at Ground Zero, however, many firefighters and first responders could well be diagnosed sooner. There have already been mesothelioma deaths among people who worked at or near the 9/11 site, but the full impact of it will not be known for years. The tens of thousands who were exposed are left to worry and wait for news they hope never comes.  

Mesothelioma patients typically live less than a year after diagnosis, so victims must move quickly to get their affairs in order, including seeking compensation to help with medical bills and provide for their families after they die.

Some first responders and volunteers have received compensation for asbestos-related illnesses through the James Zadroga 9/11 Health Compensation Act. But both the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund Congress established in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, and the fund created under the Zadroga Act will expire over the next two years, unless Congress re-authorizes funding for both. Beyond that, the only prospect for compensation for those who have not yet been diagnosed may be through the asbestos liability trust system or in court. But now Congress is considering a bill that could make it harder to obtain rightful compensation through the trusts or in court.

The so-called FACT Act (H.R. 526) filed by Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) would set up needless legal and administrative roadblocks that would delay and deny compensation for many asbestos victims. Adding insult to injury, it could also leave them vulnerable to identity theft.

The bill, backed by such corporations as Honeywell and Koch Industries, would require the liability trusts to issue quarterly reports, a burden that would drain trust resources and leave less money available for asbestos victims. The reports would also disclose online personal information about those seeking compensation, including their exposure history, medical conditions and payments issued. The bill might also result in disclosure of victims’ addresses, birth years and a portion of their Social Security numbers, exposing them to scammers and identity thieves.

In addition, corporations named in lawsuits could at any time ask the trusts for additional information related to victims’ claims, regardless of its relevance or admissibility in court. That would result in endless unnecessary paperwork and further clog the trusts and delay processing of claims.

The Farenthold bill could slow down – if not bring to a halt – compensation for firefighters and first responders – heroes who, like those brave men and women on 9/11 and the days after the attacks, run toward trouble to keep the rest of us safe. Lawmakers who support this proposal should be ashamed.

White is executive director of the Environmental Working Group and the EWG Action Fund.

Tags Blake Farenthold

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