The federal official tasked with determining what ailments should be covered by the federal Zadroga Act is expected to decide by Saturday if certain cancers will be eligible for compensation. The decision is being eagerly awaited by thousands of first responders who believe they developed cancer due to exposure to the toxic dust that coated Ground Zero and much of Lower Manhattan in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Passed in December 2010, the Zadroga Act reopened the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund for five years to provide payment for job and economic losses for first responders, those trapped in the buildings, and local residents, who suffered illness or injuries related to the toxic dust. Last year, Dr. John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), declined to include any form of cancer on the list of covered Zadroga Act illnesses, asserting there was not enough evidence linking exposure to toxic Ground Zero dust to development of cancer.
Since then, however, at least two studies have made strong connections between exposure to the toxic dust and various cancers. Last year, a Lancet study of New York City firefighters found a 19% increase in cancer overall in those who responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Most recently, Dr. Philip Landrigan, a dean at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, reported that study conducted by his team revealed a 14 percent increase in cancer rates among Ground Zero rescue workers, including significant increases in prostate, thyroid and certain blood cancers. The study involved 20,000 firefighters and police officers as well as sanitation workers, construction workers and others who assisted at Ground Zero after the terror attack, making it the largest of its kind.
In March, those studies were enough to convince World Trade Center Health Program Scientific/Technical Advisory Committee to recommend that cancers of the respiratory and digestive system, along with thyroid cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, eye cancer, oral cavity cancer, urinary tract cancer, mesothelioma, melanoma, leukemia, lymphoma, soft tissue sarcomas and all childhood and rare cancers, be deemed covered illnesses. NIOSH director Howard must decide by Saturday whether or not to adopt any of the panel’s recommendations.
According to a report from The New York Times, federal officials believe 35,000 people could ultimately sign up for Zadroga Act compensation, even without cancer’s inclusion. Advocates for patients and government officials do conceded that adding cancer to the list of covered illnesses could strain the fund’s resources.
“Depending on the numbers of cancers and the criteria for those cancers, we would certainly be getting more and different claims than we were receiving previously,” Sheila Birnbaum, the special master overseeing the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, told the Times. “We cannot add any more money to the fund, so we would have to prorate what we’re giving to people depending on the amount of people that apply, the seriousness of their injuries, the economic loss that they’ve sustained.”
The Times pointed out that since there is no reliable way to distinguish between those who developed cancer from Ground Zero and those who might have developed it anyway, any cancer victim who can prove sustained exposure to the toxic dust could potentially be eligible for payment under the Zadroga Act.