More 9/11 First Responders Are Getting Cancer, and They’re Still Waiting for Help

While those who were on the scene continue to get sick, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund begins to disburse awards.

(Photo: Gary Friedman/AFP/Getty Images)

Jul 28, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

When the World Trade Center's twin towers collapsed on Sept. 11, thousands of police officers, EMTs, firefighters, civil servants, and volunteers—many of them average New Yorkers who couldn't stomach staying home—dug through mountains of dust and rubble to search for survivors, help remove the remains of the victims, and keep people at the scene safe.

In the years since, cancer rates of first responders have been on the rise—around 2,500 individual cases have been diagnosed—the New York Post reported Monday.

Last year, that number stood at 1,140 reported cases of cancer among 9/11 first responders, according to the World Trade Center Health Program at Mount Sinai Hospital. This year, the number has jumped to 1,655 incidents of cancer among the 37,000 cops, construction workers, sanitation workers, city employees, and volunteers whom Mount Sinai Hospital monitors. Add to that the 863 firefighters with cancers who are receiving treatment because they were first responders, and a grim picture of the lasting impact of 9/11 forms.

Between 2001 and 2008, cancer rates for first responders were 15 percent higher than for the general public, according to rates in four state cancer registries. In particular, rates of thyroid, prostate, soft tissue, and lymphoid cancers were more significant for first responders.

In the same study, researchers examined the health records of 10,000 firefighters and found that they were 19 percent more likely to develop cancer than those who were not present at the World Trade Center site.

More than 400 civil servants died during the attack, and it's estimated that since then, 1,400 first responders have died from health complications related to 9/11.

A federal law passed in 2010 established the World Trade Center Health Program and provides medical treatment and monitoring for 9/11 first responders and survivors of the disaster area. The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund contains $2.8 billion. The money will be distributed among those responders and survivors who have 9/11-related illnesses but is not a program for medical treatment. Awards are calculated based on income and economic losses.

Until 2012, this law did not cover the monitoring and treatment of cancer. Today it specifies more than 50 cancers, including breast and bladder, leukemia, melanoma, lung and colorectal, and all childhood cancers.

Many experts knew that cancer was plaguing first responders long before the federal law was amended.

Exposure to the dust, debris, and chemicals at the site increased the likelihood of cancer, the FDNY's chief medical officer, Dr. David Prezant, told NY1 in 2011. The site was toxic, and "the cement dust had a pH between 10 and 11, which means that it would be like inhaling powdered Drano," Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, told NY1.

Getting adequate care and compensation has been an ongoing struggle for many first responders who missed out on a $10,000 tax refund, the New York Daily News reported Sunday. The IRS and tax preparers failed to inform some recipients that disability income from acts of terrorism is not taxable.

The VCF pays sick responders for lost earnings as well as pain and suffering. By June 30, the fund had received 1,145 claims from responders as well as some residents and visitors. Of those claims, 881 were found eligible for awards, and the rest are under review.

The Post reports that 115 cancer claimants—both sufferers and families—have received $50.5 million total. The awards range from $400,000 to $4.1 million. Oct. 12 is the deadline for cancer claims.

One retired fire captain with lung disease and pancreatic cancer was recently given $1.5 million from the VCF fund. The captain, who wasn't identified in the piece, gets 10 percent of the money now and the rest in 2016.

"I'm hoping they rush more cases like mine, where we're not expected to last long," he told the Post.