Silent killer — 9/11 illnesses strike national first responders
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We are all too familiar with the grim toll of 9/11: 2,974 lives lost at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and aboard United Flight 93.

What many do not realize is that, tragically, in the years since, the number of victims has continued to grow. People are continuing to become seriously ill and die as a direct result of 9/11 from health complications and diseases caused by exposure to toxic dust at the sites in New York and Washington, D.C.


According to Lee Clarke, Chairperson for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH), more than 5,700 survivors of 9/11 community currently have cancer. That number is based strictly on available data of those receiving federal compensation and medical aid, meaning the total is certainly larger when accounting for the countless others who have not yet applied for aid.


Most of the survivors who have not applied for compensation or health monitoring have not done so because they are unaware that NYCOSH has linked 68 cancers to the toxins. They don’t know about the existence of the federal Victims Compensation Fund (VCF) and the WTC Health Center. Anyone who spent time in Lower Manhattan during the 10 months following the attacks — whether they were working directly at the site or not — is eligible.

About a month ago, I had the honor of being a speaker at the annual Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Search and Rescue Response (SAR) System Task Force Meeting. This 180-person meeting was held in Salt Lake City and was attended by the leaders and members representing national emergency response teams from 42 states, almost all of whom responded to the call for help following the 9/11 attacks.

I sought to speak and raise awareness about the federal programs in place for those who have contracted illnesses — or who may still be at risk of becoming sick — as a result of their work in the search and recovery efforts.

While there, I met with many attendees, most of whom were unaware of the programs available to them.

Utah Assistant Fire Chief Clair Baldwin, who leads his state’s SAR Task Force, informed me that, among his group of 68 who worked at the World Trade Center site, every single one of them had developed respiratory problems. The air was so full of toxins that their respirator filters had to be changed every three to four hours, as opposed to the normal twelve hours.

Chief Baldwin said one of his team members succumbed to non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Another is in remission from the same disease. A third had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Even before the coughs became a central point of worry, they should have known that bad news was coming when all the rescue dogs they brought with them died of cancer within two short years.

A first responder leader from Indianapolis echoed Chief Baldwin’s story, saying that amongst their 85 who had worked on the pile, two had died from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, one had been diagnosed with breast cancer and a number of others had been diagnosed with various forms of skin cancer.

Deceased Philadelphia firefighter Richard Benditt was a member of a SAR Task Force that responded to the Trade Center site. In 2011, Benditt succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 61.

Prior to his death, Benditt and his wife wondered whether his illness was related to his three weeks of service in New York. Following his death, Mrs. Benditt applied to the VCF but was turned down because she had difficulty navigating the complicated application process and she was missing vital documentation.

I was honored to intervene on Benditt’s behalf and appealed to the VCF’s Special Master to revisit the denial of her application. After securing witnesses to confirm firefighter Benditt’s presence at Ground Zero, we appeared at a hearing, submitted Benditt’s medical history, and the Special Master found that Benditt’s illness and death was caused by his WTC toxic exposure.

Not all stories of 9/11 survivors and their families end as Benditt’s did. Many claimants become so overwhelmed by the process that they never complete the application. In fact, the VCF awards compensation for both pain and suffering as well as lost income, to replace wages that sick claimants can no longer earn due to their illnesses.

The ongoing 9/11-related illnesses and cancers are a national health crisis. Anyone who was exposed to the toxic dust is at risk and eligible for health care and compensation. The Zadroga Act, passed by Congress in 2011, was put in place so these survivors receive the help of an appreciative nation. They deserve it.

Michael Barasch is an attorney and managing partner at Barasch McGarry Salzman & Penson.  His law firm has over 36 years of experience representing injured NYC firefighters. The firm has represented more 9/11 victims before the Victim Compensation Fund than any other firm in the country.  

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