18 years later, 9/11 responders are still falling gravely ill
For thousands of first responders and other Sept. 11 survivors, there's virtually nothing more false than the adage "time heals all wounds."
Eighteen years after the terror attacks, there are new diagnoses of chronic illness linked to the toxic conditions at Ground Zero in the days, weeks and months after 9/11, according to Iris Udasin, professor of environmental and occupational medicine at Rutgers University School of Public Health.
The Piscataway campus houses one of eight Clinical Centers of Excellence administered by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as a part of the World Trade Center Health Program.
Udasin says they are most recently seeing a lot of new cancer cases among existing patients enrolled in the WTC Health Program. The patients have been doing screening tests like colonoscopies since their extended time spent at Ground Zero.
She says cases of lung cancer also are just now showing for some, as different types of cancer can have latency periods of 15 to 20 years or more, during which no symptoms have surfaced until long after the exposure that caused the illness.
The WTC health program enrollment as of June 2019 was 97,686 people, according to CDC data. Of those, 2,448 have died.
Of those enrolled in the program, 60% are General Responders who assisted in recovery efforts at Ground Zero.
Another 22% are survivors, who lived or worked close to the devastated site.
Udasin says they follow more than 3,000 patients at the Rutgers site alone and at least two thirds are present or former New Jersey residents.
She says the other CCE sites in New York also follow a significant number of New Jersey residents enrolled in the WTC health program.
Of the total program, 70% of patients are certified with World Trade Center related conditions and 15% program-wide have at least one type of cancer, according to Udasin.
She adds "our numbers in New Jersey are a little higher."
The World Trade Center Health Program provides medical monitoring and treatment for eligible rescue, recovery, and clean-up workers who responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as outlined by the James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act of 2010. It also provides for survivors who lived and worked in the area of Ground Zero.
In a 2015 re-authorization signed by President Barack Obama, the program was "essentially made permanent," as it is authorized until 2090, according to 911healthwatch.org.
That same legislation extended the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund until December 2020.
In late July, President Donald Trump signed a long-sought extension of the Victim Compensation Fund related to the Sept. 11 attacks. The extension of the more than $7 billion fund runs through 2092, essentially making it permanent.
Udasin says the July extension of the compensation fund has given existing patients enrolled in the WTC health program some relief, knowing that there will continue to be benefits as they navigate cancer, chronic lung problems like sarcoidosis, severe asthma and pulmonary fibrosis.
She says there's also motivation for other survivors, not yet showing symptoms of such chronic illnesses, to enroll in the program and get themselves covered by the benefits as health care providers prepare to deal with new diagnoses for years ahead, still stemming from the 9/11 attacks and the months that followed with toxic conditions in lower Manhattan.
The WTC health program provides screening benefits, which are key for survivors trying to maintain as healthy a lifestyle as possible, Udasin said.