Eight days after 9/11, former EPA administrator Christine Whitman told New Yorkers that the dust-filled air that filled New York City’s skies was safe to breathe. We now know how shockingly false this declaration of safety was.
In fact, more people may have died from healthcare complications resulting from breathing in toxic debris than people who died in the 9/11 attacks nearly 17 years ago. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), more than 500,000 people are battling cancer and other diseases linked to the toxins that poured into the air following the attacks. Of the 500,000 exposed, NIOSH estimates 35,000 will develop cancer at a rate 21 percent higher than the general population.
And unless Congress acts, these victims won’t get compensation for years of injury and irreparable damage endured from prolonged exposure to these toxins.
Ground Zero burned for 99 days. In a speech to the American Chemical Society in 2003, atmospheric scientist Thomas Cahill, who analyzed samples from Ground Zero, said the debris was essentially an enormous concoction of toxic chemicals and gases.
“The debris pile acted like a chemical factory,” Cahill said. “It cooked together the components of the buildings and their contents, including enormous numbers of computers, and gave off gases of toxic metals, acids, and organics.”
According to the National Resources Defense Council (PDF link), the 16-acre site contained 1.2 million tons of building material and contents, which burned at temperatures close to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit along with 90,000 liters of jet fuel and 130,000 gallons of transformer oil. The “chemical factory” Cahill described was an estimated 300 to 400 tons of asbestos, 50,000 personal computers (each of which included mercury and lead), 300 mainframe computers, hundreds of miles of wires containing polyvinyl chloride, 23,00 mercury containing light bulbs, and 12,000 miles of electric cables containing polychlorinated biphenyls.
In 2003, the EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) admitted that, in reference to Whitman’s statement declaring the air “safe to breathe” on September 19, 2001, the agency “did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement” regarding safety. The OIG also revealed that the White House pressured the EPA to remove cautionary statements in favor of reassuring ones.
10 years after 9/11, former President Barack Obama signed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act (Zadroga Act) into law. Named for a New York City Police Detective whose death was determined to be caused by exposure to 9/11 toxins, the Zadroga Act provided for the WTC Health Program and reopened the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF). In 2016, Congress reauthorized the Zadroga Act.
The Zadroga Act has provided $12 billion in funding for the World Trade Center Health Program and the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF). The Health Program provides free monitoring, medication, and treatment, while the Fund provides tax-free compensation as a lump sum payment. While the WTC Health Program is fully funded through 2090, the VCF is due to expire on December 18, 2020.
Time is of the essence for workers, volunteers, and survivors to determine eligibility. Of the 500,000 people exposed at Ground Zero, only 20 percent are members of the Health Program and only 5 percent have submitted claims to the Compensation Fund. Of the 35,000 individuals projected to develop cancer, less than 1/3 have been certified by the WTC Health Program. And of the $7 billion in funding, over $3 billion has already been paid to claimants.
Individuals may be eligible for free healthcare and compensation if between September 11, 2001 and May 30, 2002 they were present:
- At Ground Zero
- In Lower Manhattan, south of Canal Street (working, residing, attending school, or visiting)
- The Staten Island Fresh Kills Landfill
- In any area related to, or along, debris removal routes (e.g. piers and barges)
- At the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City or temporary morgues
- In areas where WTC dust-contaminated vehicles or equipment were cleaned or rehabilitated
As the deadline looms, it begs the question- will Congress let the fund expire, leaving 9/11 victims in the dust? Will the fund close before the true effects of exposure to 300 to 400 tons of asbestos are exposed? Mesothelioma, just one of over 70 cancers eligible for 9/11 compensation, takes about twenty years to rear its ugly head, but the Fund is due to expire only 19 years after 9/11.
The VCF was originally due to close in 2016. However, victims of 9/11 have had the benefit of New York’s representatives in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, relentlessly fighting on their behalf for health and compensation benefits, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D), Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) and Rep. Peter King (R). Thanks to their leadership, the VCF was extended through December 18, 2020 and the WTC Health Program was fully funded through 2090.
However, it’s important to remember that even though Congress voted to extend the Zadroga Act, 113 members of the House and 33 members of the Senate voted against it. Candidates on the November 2018 ballot need to be asked directly if they support extending the Zadroga Act or not. The future of hundreds of thousands of people depends on it.
Matthew J. Baione is a New York attorney and founding partner of Pitta & Baione LLP, a firm dedicated to obtaining health and compensation benefits for 9/11 victims.