Even as 9/11 advocates for the renewal of Victims Compensation Fund reached a majority in the House of Representatives, with 226 co-sponsors, their efforts took on a new sense of urgency with the deaths of three retired firefighter World Trade Center responders within a 48-hour period early this month.   

Last year, Rupa Bhattacharyya, the Special Master for the 9/11 VCF,  announced that because of a dramatic spike in 9/11 wrongful-death and WTC-related cancer claims, the $7.3 billion fund would have to greatly reduce its payouts. Without a re-authorization, the program is slated to close in 2020. 

Two-Front Battles

The VCF has been a lifeline for thousands of first-responders and their families as they battle a difficult and sometimes-terminal diagnosis and find themselves enmeshed in contentious litigation over their claims. 

In February, to stretch its remaining funds, the VCF started cutting its awards in half. Attorney Michael Barasch said then, “Colon cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, that were all getting $250,000 before Feb. 1 are now getting $125,000."

Under the pending VCF re-authorization bill, claimants who received the reduced payments would be ultimately be made whole. The VCF is open to the 90,000 first-responders who worked or volunteered in and around the lower Manhattan site, as well as to the 400,000 survivors who lived, worked or went to school below Canal St.  at the time of the attack and the several months of clean-up that followed. 

While the number of Fire Department members who perished on Sept. 11, 2001 was 343, the number of FDNY lives lost to the occupational exposure to the contaminated site is approaching 200 and growing steadily, according to union officials.

UFOA: 1,000 Have Cancer

Uniformed Firefighters Association President James Lemonda confirmed that in addition to those who have died from their exposure since the attack, “over 1,000 [Fire Department] members have documented cancers and lung ailments attributed to their work down at the Trade Center.” 

“This is a day that our nation was attacked by a foreign enemy on our home soil and what you witnessed was the greatest rescue attempt ever, anywhere in the world,” he said in an interview. “The toll is continuing. It is mounting because we had toiled in that toxic stew 24-7, every single day, until we hit the bottom of what once was the Twin Towers.”

On April 2, Lieut. Timothy P O’Neill, who joined the department in 1981, died from his WTC-related cancer. His passing was followed by the death of Fire Marshal Michael Andreachi, 78. He joined the FDNY in 1962, and responded on 9/11 despite being retired at the time. On April 4, Firefighter Kevin Lennon, 54, who came on in 2000 and worked at Ladder Company 175 in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn succumbed to his WTC cancer.

"The incredible bravery and selfless service displayed at the World Trade Center continues to take the lives of far too many of our members,” Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said in a statement. “This is a painful reality for our Department."  

Most Get Annual Check-Ups

According to the latest WTC Health Program data, more than 74,000 of the 90,000 first-responders are getting annual screening. By contrast, only about 20,000 of the 400,000 estimated survivors who lived or worked below Canal St. are being tracked because they signed up. Under the guidelines for the WTC program, survivors don’t get free screenings until they display symptoms. Yet it was an unexpected spike in wrongful-death claims from this cohort that brought pressure on the VCF.

John Feal, a construction worker who was injured during the WTC  clean-up, is a leading 9/11 advocate who maintains a memorial wall on Long Island for responders to commemorate those who have died from a WTC-related illness. His list is approaching 2,100 names.  

In January, a Rutgers study documented an increase in head and neck cancers among workers and volunteers at the Trade Center site that flagged emerging risks that required ongoing monitoring and treatment of those who were exposed during the initial response. 

The study, which appears in the International Journal of Cancer, is the first to flag a higher incidence of head and neck cancers among WTC first-responders, with a 40-percent spike in the diagnoses of these diseases between 2009 and 2012 

‘Need For Monitoring’

According to a Rutgers press release, “the findings highlight the need to examine the potentially carcinogenic effects of WTC exposure in the context of other strong risk factors and the need for continued medical monitoring of WTC responders, particularly the police and military.” 

“Since cancers are diseases of long latency, the findings of significant excess cancer in this period point to a newly emerging trend that requires ongoing monitoring and treatment of WTC-exposed persons,” said lead author Judith Graber, an associate professor at Rutgers School of Public Health and a researcher at the Rutgers Environmental and Occupational Health Science  Institute. 

The research was generated by a two- year study paid for by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examining whether first-responders “were at greater risk of human papillomavirus (HPV)­-related throat and tongue cancer because of their exposure during recovery efforts in lower Manhattan,” according to Rutgers. 

The release continued, “The most prevalent increases were oropharyngeal cancers, which are often associated with HPV infection, and laryngeal cancer, but not oral and nasal cancers. The study also found that head and neck cancers were most associated with responders who were over 55, were non-Hispanic whites or who worked in military or protective service occupations and performed rescue and recovery and maintained the perimeter after the attacks.” 

Ben Chevat, executive director of Citizens for Extension of the James Zadroga Act, said in a phone interview, “We are making good progress on building support from across the country for the legislation—“Never Forget the Heroes: Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act” S 546/ HR 1327—that would fully fund and extend the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and reverse the cuts in compensation that are just starting to be received by injured and ill 9/11 responders and survivors. Congress is coming together in a bipartisan effort to help injured and ill 9/11 first-responders and survivors still suffering the impact of toxins at Ground Zero. We have over 200 sponsors in the House and 33 sponsors in the Senate.”

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