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May 6, 2015

Yet another reason health programs need to evolve for 9/11 workers

by: Jodi Westbrook Flowers

With every passing day, the need to evolve programs that support 9/11 rescue and cleanup workers grows; right along with the list of serious diseases these brave men and women may suffer from.

First responders and people who lived or worked near the World Trade Center following 9/11 unfortunately face an uphill battle in dealing with potential future ailments resulting from their exposure to toxic dust, chemicals and other dangerous debris released in the air when the Twin Towers fell. While an astonishing number of respiratory illnesses and close to 60 cancers, including mesothelioma, have been linked to this exposure, a new study recently published additional discouraging news. The study linked people’s risk of developing certain autoimmune disorders with extended exposure at Ground Zero. To be exact, the study cites a 13% increased risk for each month spent on-site and tripled the risk for those who spent at least ten months working at the site.

Autoimmune disorders in WTC workers

The study, published in the May 2015 edition of Arthritis and Rheumatology, found that several autoimmune diseases are now affecting people exposed to 9/11 cleanup, including:

  • Dermatomyositis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Vasculitis

Sadly, the number of diseases affecting these victims continues to grow as the years pass. And, unfortunately, the full range of potential illnesses is still not known as many of these illnesses can lie dormant for years.  

Health care and funding for first responders and other 9/11 victims

As health problems began to manifest in 9/11 workers in the years following the attacks, two programs were created to help them both physically and financially:

  1. The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010: The World Trade Center Health Program, which monitors and treats first responders and civilians for injuries arising from these exposures.
  2. The 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund II, which compensates workers, residents and eligible persons for their losses caused by these injuries.

Upon opening, the Fund and the WTC Health Program covered a number of respiratory conditions, aerodigestive disorders, mental health conditions and musculoskeletal disorders. On Sept. 10, 2012, 58 cancers were also made eligible for compensation by the Victim Compensation Fund II.

Supporting continued assistance to injured 9/11 workers

For me, this new study highlights one fundamentally important fact; that ongoing treatment and monitoring of 9/11 workers are absolutely necessary in helping to prevent, reduce or delay these diseases. In order for these conditions to be continually monitored, they should be included on the WTC Health Program’s list of covered conditions, and the at risk population need to be made aware so that they can be knowledgeable of early signs and symptoms.

In mid-April, bi-partisan legislation was introduced that would extend funding for those suffering from 9/11-related ailments permanently, allowing victims to continue to have access to health care. This is a necessary and positive step in helping to ensure those harmed by 9/11, and those who dedicated so much to the cleanup efforts, are cared for.

As our understanding of these illnesses continues to evolve, so too should these programs. The Victim Compensation Fund II and WTC Health Program took great strides in the right direction when they accepted cancer as an eligible condition, and they will have to continue to adjust and evolve to better serve the men and women who sacrificed their lives, and future health, in their nation’s time of need.