New York Lawmakers Continue Push to Include Cancer In 9/11 Health ProgramBy Jennifer Scholtes
CQ Roll Call
January 9, 2013
A study calling into question the link between cancer and exposure to debris at Ground Zero hasn’t changed the opinion of three House lawmakers from New York City that the connection exists.
Democratic Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, along with Republican Rep. Peter T. King, have fought for the last two years to have cancer treated under the health care program Congress created in 2010 for those sick or injured from working or living near the World Trade Center site after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Six months after the head of the World Trade Center Health Program announced that a wide range of cancers would in fact be treated, the city’s health department released a study in December that found that the number of cancer cases among those exposed to the site is not significantly elevated. But the New Yorkers say the study’s findings actually reaffirm their belief that Ground Zero exposure has caused cancer and that they are certain more diagnoses will be made in years to come.
“It does not cast any doubt at all,” says Nadler, who represents Manhattan’s west side. “One of the things that convinced me that we ought to do this was that suddenly you were finding cancers that you normally saw in people 75 years old in 45-year-old first responders. And there’s clearly a causal impact.”
Whether those on Capitol Hill are convinced exposure to Ground Zero dust and debris has resulted in more cancer cases will matter when the health program runs out of funding authority in four years and the issue regains legislative relevancy. How many cancer cases are treated under the program will also impact how quickly its funding dwindles.
The law (PL 111-347) that created the program authorizes the federal government to pay 90 percent of the cost, with the remaining 10 percent covered by New York City. Federal contribution was capped at $71 million for fiscal 2011 and is set to increase annually to $431 million by fiscal 2015. Funding for fiscal 2016 is authorized to come from leftover balances from previous years.
The three New York City lawmakers had wanted to include coverage for cancer in their legislation before it was signed into law in the first days of 2011. But doing so would probably have doomed chances of enacting the bill, which was initially voted down in the House and blocked in the Senate before clearing in the last days of the 111th Congress with a different cost offset.
Instead of including cancer coverage in the legislation, the lawmakers required the program’s head to review cancer cases among those enrolled and hand down a decision on what would be covered.
“Cancer takes so long to occur, so in the original bill, we didn’t include it,” said Maloney, who represents Manhattan’s east side. “We put a framework in for a review. And when the review board looked at it, they found that it was causing cancer in responders. I personally believe that over time the scientific data will be there because they were so heavily exposed to these fumes.”
The New York City study released in December, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that those enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program are at higher risk for cancers of the prostate, thyroid and plasma cells. The study notes, however, that the findings were based “on a small number of events and multiple comparisons” and that “no significant associations were observed with intensity of World Trade Center exposures.”
The health department recommends further follow-up for certain “long-latency” cancers typically diagnosed many years after exposure to toxins.
“The typical latency for cancers is 15 to 20 years,” Nadler said. “You don’t want to wait and do a controlled experiment for 50 years and then say, ‘Gee, we really ought to have helped people.’ ”
After the hijacked planes hit the Twin Towers in 2001, the dust cloud from the buildings’ collapse filled the air with particles of concrete, asbestos and material toxically mixed by the heat of the burning buildings. Many first responders and recovery workers exposed to the debris have traveled to Washington since 2001 to tell lawmakers that they believe cancer rates among their peers are much higher than the general public and to lobby to have the disease included under the health program.
The British medical journal the Lancet published a study in 2011 that concluded rates of cancer for firefighters at Ground Zero were 19 percent higher than the general population of firefighters surveyed. And the World Trade Center Health Program’s advisory board concluded last year that “exposures resulting from the collapse of the buildings and high-temperature fires are likely to increase the probability of developing some cancers.”