The medical journal “The Lancet” published a study last week that finds male firefighters who dug through the wreckage of the World Trade Center are 19 percent more likely to contract cancer than other male New York firefighters and 10 percent more likely than the general U.S. male population.
While those who conducted the study are hesitant to conclusively establish a link, saying “This is not an epidemic,” it has raised concerns about the medical treatment, or lack thereof, first responders have received since that fateful day.
“We’re all looking for a signal today, but we’re all anticipating that the signal will get stronger in the years ahead,” said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, who treats Sept. 11 emergency workers.
Additionally, first responders who came into contact with the dust and ash that billowed forth following the towers’ collapse were found to have increased levels of asthma, sinus infections, gastrooesophageal reflux disease, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Americans are always quick to pledge their support for those who worked at Ground Zero, but so far there has been little governmental support. You may have missed it amid the Christmas hoopla, but back in December, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act was passed through Congress. The bill set aside $4.3 billion for first responders who became ill after the Sept. 11 attacks. But this was only after months of debate — because in today’s political climate, no subject is off-limits to partisan rancor.
The bill originally was intended to supply $7.5 billion, but was slowly whittled down before Republicans forced a deal for only $4.3 billion.
“I’ll stand in the way of anything that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t spend our money wisely, so you know, it doesn’t matter what the issue is … ” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Compensating the brave souls who risked their health and safety to search for survivors and clear the debris after Sept. 11 should not have been an issue in the first place.
Former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-NY, gave a fiery speech on the congressional floor in July 2010 after the bill first failed to pass. “It’s Republicans wrapping their arms around Republicans rather than doing the right thing on behalf of the heroes. It is a shame! A shame!” said Weiner.
That came from a man who would later post pictures of his erect penis on Twitter, so he knows a little something about shameful behavior.
But as I said, the bill did eventually pass. There is only one caveat — cancer is not covered within the health plan. Asthma and other respiratory illnesses are the focus of the bill, but cancer was left out. One of the leading killer illnesses in human history and one that is starting to show signs of prevalence amongst the first responders this bill was supposed to aid is not accounted for.
This is a travesty.
Imagine you worked in an environment where you were subject to handling contaminated meat, but E. coli was not covered by your company health plan. You would be foolish to accept such a plan. But in this case, the workers have already been exposed to something more dangerous and are relying upon the kindness of the government to give them a break ten years after the fact.
The Zadroga Act does have a review system for adding new illnesses to the list of those covered by the plan, but I cannot understand why such an obvious illness as cancer was overlooked.
“ … some contaminants in the WTC dust, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, and dioxins, are known carcinogens,” said New York City Fire Department Chief Medical Officer Dr. David J. Prezant.
Yet Congress did not bother to include cancer patients in their initial estimate of what to include in the Zadroga Act. If someone had come to me and said, “Yeah, we got people working in an environment that could lead to cancer,” my response would be, “You know, maybe we should do something to prepare for that.”
But that is not how Congress works. It is all about the Benjamins on Capitol Hill. “We saved a lot of money,” said Sen. Coburn in an interview after passing the bill.
If you want to know why Congress only has a 13 percent approval rating, look no further than the Zadroga Act. A bill meant to compensate the heroes who risked everything on Sept. 11 was turned into a political talking point, stripped of $3.2 billion and complete with an obvious, gaping flaw.
Maybe it is because cancer is a subject that hits close to home for me, but I can see no excuse for this behavior. Even in this economic depression, there are some things worth spending extra money on. There are some things worth putting aside old political grudges.
Sept. 11 is one of those things.