The Health Care Responders Need: A Former Lower Manhattan Resident and Recovery Worker Urges Renewal of the 9/11 Zadroga Law
May 30 marks the anniversary of the end of the recovery and cleanup operations at the World Trade Center site when the last piece of debris — a misshapen steel column — was cleared in 2002.
Thirteen years later, workers, volunteers and survivors can’t clear their bodies of the toxic effects of 9/11. As if in some kind of bizarre “Survivor” reality TV show spin-off, their medical and financial benefits authorized under the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010 will terminate in 17 months unless new legislation is passed.
I’m on this show — and I don’t like it.
In 2001, I was a middle-aged business executive trying to hold together a troubled marriage while running a software firm in Lower Manhattan. That morning in September, I planned to have a late breakfast at the club at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the top floor of the North Tower.
I awoke to fire engine horns, police sirens and the sight of air with the consistency of pancake batter streaming through my living-room window.
I left my eighth-floor apartment, walked down a darkened stairwell, and opened the door. The lobby was filled with people looking as if they just came in from a snowstorm. Except this wasn’t snow. All of them — elderly, infants, schoolchildren, street vendors, vagrants, my neighbors from the building — were coated from head to foot.
I worked with the concierge to clean the dust and ashes off of everyone. We instinctively knew it was something that needed to be removed. In the weeks that followed, I volunteered to assist in the rescue and recovery efforts.
On Sept. 28, 2001, I worked at the Salvation Army to dispense food and supplies in its Canteen at the foot of Ground Zero. I immediately began experiencing World Trade Center cough — a dry cough that tears at your throat and lungs. I was diagnosed with asthma the following year. Then my health deteriorated severely in 2013.
I had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor that June and underwent six months of chemotherapy. In February of 2014 the World Trade Center Health Program certified my cancer, along with asthma and post-traumatic stress disorder, as being linked to my exposure to the World Trade Center disaster.
We now have scientific evidence that the air in Lower Manhattan contained a complex mixture of toxic substances. Dr. Philip Landrigan of Mount Sinai Hospital said, “The cement dust had a pH of between 10 and 11, which means that it would be like inhaling powdered Drano.”
Ongoing studies funded by the federal government and the New York Fire Department have found that 9/11 responders and volunteers have a higher chance of contracting cancer than the general population.
I joined the relief efforts to make a difference. Now I contemplate an uncertain future along with the over 71,000 other participants in the World Trade Center Health Registry who face the termination of medical benefits and compensation provided us by the federal government’s expiring Zadroga Law, signed into law in early 2011.
This will impose an enormous hardship on the workers and volunteers whose lives were forever altered by the terrorist attacks.
On April 14, 2015, New York Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney introduced the James Zadroga Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act on the floor of the House of Representatives. She stated, “The clock is ticking for those heroes and survivors of 9/11. In just over 500 days, the programs that help them cope with 9/11 related illnesses will expire.” An identical bill was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand the same day.
There is more at stake than the reauthorization and extension of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. This is not a reality TV show.
The slogan “9/11 Never Forget” should guide Congress in extending the Zadroga Act as a litmus test for upholding our national honor.
Dodd is a freelance writer and author who lives in Princeton, New Jersey. He recently released his debut novel “Betrayal by Blood and Demons.” He is represented by Barasch & McGarry and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.