Lessons from 9/11: Putting health and safety first

Before 9/11, the term, “first responder,” was not widely used, if at all.

The term came into common usage in the wake of that horrific day in 2001 to describe the thousands of public health and safety personnel — firefighters, police, EMTs, and others — who responded to the scene of the terrorist attacks, particularly the devastation of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York. While some object to the overuse of the “first responder” term by the media, saying it is more accurate to specify exactly which agencies responded to an incident, the term has continued to be important in addressing the long-term effects of the terrorist attacks on the emergency personnel who were present at Ground Zero.

Rubble from the Twin Towers continued to smolder for more than three months after the attacks, releasing poisonous smoke and toxic dust as responders worked the scene. Contemporarily, thousands of survivors and responders continue to struggle with “certified” illnesses linked to Ground Zero exposure.

Quantifying health effects

Firefighting has always been a dangerous job. In addition to the obvious hazards posed by flames and collapsing buildings, dangers that are less visible can be present on even the most routine fire run. Long before 9/11, it was standard for crews to wear protective gear and self-contained breathing apparatus to protect themselves from exposure to carcinogens and other toxins.

But the sheer enormity of the 9/11 disaster, along with the length of time crews spent at the scene, raised awareness of these risks and brought the health of the first responders into the forefront of national discussion. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and other researchers began carefully monitoring cancer rates among people who had prolonged exposure to the World Trade Center site.

Among findings published in the 2010 WTC Medical Working Group annual report and cited on the New York City government’s 9/11 Health website:

  • FDNY found that nearly 9,000 firefighters with World Trade Center exposure may be at greater risk for cancer than firefighters who were not exposed.
  • The WTC Health Registry found increases in rates of prostate cancer, thyroid cancer and multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, among nearly 34,000 WTC rescue and recovery workers in comparison to average rates among New York State residents after adjusting for age, race/ethnicity, and gender.
  • Prostate and thyroid cancer rates were higher than expected among nearly 21,000 rescue and recovery workers enrolled in the WTC Health Program when compared to typical rates in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, where the majority of the responders lived.

These are just a few of many findings of the numerous studies conducted in the past 18 years in an attempt to quantify the hidden damage done by 9/11. The studies also suggested that, given the long latency period for most cancers, further monitoring of WTC responders would be necessary to track any increase in illnesses over time.

Political fight

Although 9/11 brought the country together for a time, it did not take long before the healthcare needs of first responders became a more divisive political issue. A number of Federal programs were established to help individuals battling 9/11-related illnesses, but there was little consensus on how to fund them or for how long. This summer, one such issue came to a noisy conclusion in Congress.

The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund was due to run out of money in December 2020. The fund was created to provide compensation to anyone who was killed or suffered physical harm resulting from the airplanes’ impacts or the debris removal efforts in the aftermath of those impacts, regardless of whether they were a first responder or a civilian. (PDF link).

Still, it was the first responders who became the face of the issue, and their most vocal advocate was, of all people, a comedian—Jon Stewart, who was still the host of the New York-based “The Daily Show” in 2001. When the time came to renew the fund in 2015, a permanent version of the fund was voted down in favor of a temporary, five-year renewal. When the issue came up again this year, Stewart attacked Congress for failing to permanently authorize the fund and seemingly turning their backs on the 9/11 emergency crews. “They responded in five seconds, they did their jobs. With courage, grace, tenacity, humility. Eighteen years later, do yours!” Stewart stated at the time.[bctt tweet=”The Senate and House both voted in favor of the “Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act.”]

Finally, they did. Over this past summer, the Senate and House both voted in favor of the “Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act.” This legislation preserved funding for the program, if not permanently, at least through 2090, far beyond the expected lifespan of anyone who was an adult in 2001.

Posted on Sep 10, 2019