As the nation recovered from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a public health disaster was just beginning to unfold. After 9/11, Americans from all 50 states rushed to Ground Zero to help in any way they could. Hundreds of thousands of brave men and women risked their lives to help others, working in extremely hazardous conditions, often without proper protective equipment. Many were injured in the course of this work.
Rescue and recovery workers breathed in a toxic stew of chemicals, asbestos, pulverized cement, and other health hazards released into the air when the towers fell, and as the site smoldered for months. The dust cloud that rolled through lower Manhattan after the attacks settled in homes, offices, and buildings – exposing tens of thousands more to the same toxins.
Today, more than 33,000 people are struggling with illnesses or injuries caused by the attacks. They live in every state and 433 out of 435 Congressional districts nationwide. Many are disabled and can no longer work. They are suffering from a host of chronic diseases: asthma, obstructive pulmonary disease, and gastroesophageal reflux disease, to name but a few. Medical research has identified more than 50 types of cancer caused by 9/11 toxins. 4,166 9/11 responders and survivors have been diagnosed with cancers caused or made worse by 9/11 – a number that is sure to grow in the years to come. Eighty-five NYPD officers have reportedly passed away from 9/11-related illnesses, more than died on 9/11 itself. Over 130 firefighters have died of 9/11 illnesses, as well. Many other responders and survivors have died from their 9/11 illnesses. Many are experiencing deteriorating health status despite sound medical treatment and are becoming progressively disabled.
Shortly after the attacks, officials in former President George W. Bush’s administration said that the air in lower Manhattan was “safe to breathe”. For years afterward, the Bush Administration refused to admit that this claim was wrong, and they opposed every effort to help those who were suffering with 9/11-related health problems.
As a result, it took eight long years to convince Washington to help the heroes and heroines of 9/11. In 2011, President Obama signed into law the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which provides health care and economic aid for those who are suffering, or have died, as a result of the attacks. The law established the World Trade Center Health Program and reopened the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF).
Passing this law was a difficult fight. As a compromise to overcome a filibuster in the Senate led by Senator Mike Enzi and then Senator Tom Coburn that got the Zadroga Act through Congress. Federal 9/11 health care and compensation programs were authorized but for only five years and the Compensation Program was not given the needed resources.
That was the challenge facing injured and ill 9/11 responders, survivors and their families in 2015. If Congress did not take action and reauthorize the Zadroga Act, the World Trade Center Health Program would have been forced to shut down in 2016 and stop providing health care and medical monitoring to more than 72,000 Americans with 9/11-related illnesses.
The VCF, which provides economic aid for those who are sick and injured from 9/11, which at the time had deemed more than 12,150 injured rescue and recovery workers from around the country eligible for compensation was also slated to shut down in 2016. Without Congressional action, these heroes, because of the lack of funding in the original bill could have their compensation awards cut in half or more — and those who are diagnosed with cancer in future years would not have access to compensation if they were disabled.
With a lot of effort from 9/11 responders, survivors, their families, unions representing the responders, advocates and with the help of Jon Stewart we were successful in Remembering 9/11 should be more than a bumper sticker by getting Congress to pass legislation to make the World Trade Center Health Program permanent and to extend the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund another five years with additional funds sufficient to fully pay claims.