9/11 attacks still claiming lives of rescue and cleanup workers

On September 11, 2001, 2,977 were killed as a direct result of the terrorist attacks. However, that number only tell a part of the story. The horrific events of that day and its aftermath are still claiming lives. Experts now predict that the death toll from 9/11-related diseases will soon exceed the number of lives lost that day.

After 19 men hijacked four commercial airliners and crashed them into both World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a western Pennsylvania field, the traumatized American public vowed to “never forget.” However, recent legislative battles to extend funding for compensation and health benefits to those who dies and were sickened by the attacks left some worried they would be abandoned.

While the funding was finally reauthorized this summer, the fight spotlighted the ongoing suffering caused by the attacks.

When the World Trade Center collapsed, unprecedented amounts of ash, chemicals and other toxic materials were released into the air. Despite the swirling dust, smoke and debris, the Environmental Protection Agency, then headed by Christie Todd Whitman, infamously assured the public that the air at Ground Zero was safe to breathe.

But that claim quickly proved to be tragically wrong. Soon after, many first responders and other workers who assisted with the months-long cleanup developed illnesses that were directly traced to exposure to the site. Medical studies have proven the links to many medical conditions.

A 2010 study by Albert Einstein College of Medicine researchers found that many New York Fire Department rescue workers suffered chronic lung damage from exposure to Ground Zero. The next year, Einstein medical researchers found that firefighters exposed to the World Trade Center disaster site were 19 percent more likely to develop cancer in the seven years following the attacks then their non-exposed colleagues.

Now, a newly released medical study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association is showing a “significant association” between exposure to the Word Trade Center site and the development of cardiovascular disease in firefighters. That study examined not just exposure to the site but also the length of time exposed.

Firefighters who responded on the day of the attacks are 44 percent more likely to develop heart disease than those who arrived after, the study found. In addition, firefighters who worked at least six months at the site were 30 percent more likely to develop cardiovascular disease than those who spent less time there.

Soon after the attacks, Congress enacted the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund to compensate the victims and their families. That fund operated until 2004.

In 2011, the fund was reactivated when President Barack Obama signed into law the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010, which authorized the payment of claims until 2016. The bill was named after New York City police officer James Zadroga who died in 2006 from a 9/11-related respiratory illness. Subsequent legislation extended funding for claims until 2020. As the deadline approached, however, Congress was often bitterly divided on how to extend the program.

First responders, recovery workers and their families grew increasingly worried about whether they’d be abandoned next year.

This summer saw the fight over expanding the claims deadline beyond next year finally end. In July, Congress finally passed a measure extending the claims deadline to 2090. The measure authorized $10.2 billion for the fund over the next 10 years and additional billions in funding until 2090.

There is still much uncertainty on how many victims there will be.

In 2011, as part of the Zadroga Act, the federal government launched the World Trade Center Health Program to provide monitoring and treatment for specific conditions determine to be related to 9/11. The program was established under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is administered by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The program estimates that more than 400,000 people were exposed to toxic contaminants in the months following the 9/11 attacks. It has identified a host of conditions including asthma, chronic cough, respiratory disorders, digestive disorders, certain cancers, musculoskeletal conditions and mental health issues as linked to the exposure to Ground Zero.

The program reported that through March, more than 70,000 first responders and recovery workers had enrolled for benefits. More than 32,000 have respiratory or digestive diseases and another 700 have died from such conditions, according to the report. Meanwhile, 9,000 have claims for 9/11-related cancers, which have claimed at least 600 people so far.

The numbers show that the actual death toll will far exceed the near 3,000 who died on 9/11. The true scope of the staggering devastation is just becoming evident. As awful as the losses were on that day, they may be dwarfed by the harm done to those who bravely and unselfishly responded and served at Ground Zero. On this, the 18th anniversary of that terrible day, let us remember those who sacrificed to serve and are still suffering from the effects.

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