Originally Denied by the EPA, the Federal Government Now Acknowledges the Link between Ground Zero Air and Cancer
Two weeks ago, New York City held the 11th annual name-reading ceremony for the victims who died in the collapse of the towers on September 11, 2001. Missing from the ceremony, however, were the names of victims who died years after the attacks. Since 9/11, a multitude of ground zero workers, first responders, and inhabitants of Lower Manhattan have been diagnosed with a variety of diseases, including cancer and mesothelioma, believed due, and now presumed to be due, to exposure to toxic dust. Some have died from their illness, some survived, and some are yet to be diagnosed.
On 9/11, people from all over the nation rushed to New York City to help with search and rescue. After the search and rescue mission ended, workers were hired to clean up and dispose of the rubble. Since the twin towers were constructed during the 1970s, there was an obvious concern that asbestos used to insulate the buildings, not banned at the time of construction, would pose major health and air quality concerns.
Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman and then administrative head of the EPA assured the public that there was no need for alarm. After reviewing scientific data, Whitman issued a statement on September 18, 2001 declaring the area safe for workers and nearby inhabitants. In a press release, EPA Administrator Whitman stated,
“‘We are very encouraged that the results from our monitoring of air-quality and drinking-water conditions in both New York and near the Pentagon show that the public in these areas is not being exposed to excessive levels of asbestos or other harmful substances,’ [...] ‘Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York . . . that their air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink.’”
The credibility of this data was later called into question. In 2006, senior EPA scientist Dr. Cate Jenkins addressed a letter to members of the New York Congressional delegation stating,
“[T]est reports in 2002 and 2003 distorted the alkalinity, or pH level, of the dust released when the twin towers collapsed, downplaying its danger. [...] The test results helped the E.P.A. avoid legal liability. [... and] had a costly health effect, contributing ‘to emergency personnel and citizens not taking adequate precautions to prevent exposures.’”
During a June 2007 Congressional hearing, former Governor Whitman received harsh criticism for her statements assuring ground zero workers and Lower Manhattan inhabitants of safe air quality. When pressed to acknowledge that the toxic dust from the collapsed buildings contributed to illness, she declined. Whitman stated that a lack of conclusive evidence existed “linking the dust to disease.” She denied any presence of pressure placed on her to report the air safe in order to quickly reopen the financial district. She also expressed no regret for her statements in 2001.
Victims of ground zero exposure brought multiple lawsuits against Christine Todd Whitman, however; the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that Whitman could not be held liable.
In January 2011, President Barack Obama signed into law the Zadroga Act, which expanded the September 11th Victim’s Compensation Fund to include ground zero workers who died from cancer or respiratory diseases, “under the presumption that the cause was due to exposure during recovery efforts.” The act “sets aside money for medical care and $2.775 billion dollars to compensate claimants for lost wages and other damages related to the illnesses.”
Although initially excluded from the Act, the Act was amended to include cancer to the list of ground zero diseases, acknowledging a link between ground zero air and cancer. To date, 50 types of cancers will be covered. Noah Kushlefsky, an attorney representing 3,800 ground zero victims, foresees that with the addition of cancer, the $2.775 billion will be exhausted before all the victims receive adequate compensation. The addition of numerous cancers to be covered by the Act comes on the heels of Congressional attempts to reduce the deficit. The Zadroga Act faces $300 million in cuts.
The FealGood Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting the health and welfare of 9/11 first responders, compiled a list of known first responders with cancer and those who died from cancer on their website. Ground zero victims and their families are now seeking legal representation in order to access the victim’s fund.