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BY ALINE REYNOLDS | Federally subsidized cancer treatment is still the number one topic of discussion within the 9/11 health community.
Thanks to the push of advocates and politicians, it has also become a major talking point of the recently formed World Trade Center Health Program Scientific and Technical Advisoary Committee, which scheduled a teleconference for Tuesday, Jan. 24 with 9/11 responders and volunteers, Downtown residents and physicians, and anyone else that wished to call in. Participants planned to discuss the possible addition of cancer to the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act and health treatment eligibility criteria for first responders that assisted in the Sept. 11 plane crashes at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, among other topics.
Minutes before the teleconference was slated to begin that afternoon, however, the virtual meeting was unexpectedly aborted because of a glitch in the government’s phone system.
“Due to technical difficulties, we were unable to use the call-in phone number, and it unfortunately caused us to cancel the meeting at the last minute,” said Christina Spring, a spokesperson for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which was charged with coordinating the logistics of the meeting since it oversees the health portion of the Zadroga bill.
Rescheduling the teleconference doesn’t appear to be feasible, according to S.T.A.C. Chair Elizabeth Ward.
“There was obviously a serious technical problem. It’s just really unfortunate,” said Ward. “I’m optimistic that if we can’t have a teleconference, we’ll be able to catch up and accomplish what we need to in the S.T.A.C. meeting,” which she noted is scheduled for mid-February and will have teleconference capabilities.
This was hardly reassuring, however, to 9/11 health advocate John Feal, who had corralled 50 first responders and recovery workers to the NYC Police Museum in order to partake in Tuesday’s teleconference.
“It was unprofessional,” said Feal of the mishap. “They should have had a ‘Plan B’ or done a test the day before to ensure the phones were working properly. This is a serious issue to us and we find it to be disrespectful that they couldn’t find a way to communicate with us.”
The primary goal of the conference was to shed greater light on possible ties between certain forms of cancer and the aftermath of Sept. 11, according to S.T.A.C. member and Chair of Community Board 1’s W.T.C. Redevelopment Committee Catherine McVay Hughes. “We’re hoping to create a dialogue of the association between W.T.C. exposure and cancer, and to create the framework for the government’s second periodic review of cancer studies,” she said. On behalf of Community Board 1, Hughes introduced a resolution this week that cites multiple cancer studies dating back to 2008 and that urges the committee to “strongly” consider the emerging medical evidence of cancer among 9/11 responders and survivors.
The debate on whether to add cancer to the bill percolated last summer when N.I.O.S.H. director Dr. John Howard vetoed the addition of the disease to the list of eligible illnesses covered by the law, claiming there was insufficient evidence to do so. Howard’s decision sparked a wave of fierce pushback that included a September 7 petition from the New York State delegation.
Howard promised at the time that N.I.O.S.H. would release a second review based on scientific studies published since last summer in early-to-mid 2012, though he hasn’t since disclosed exactly when the review will come out. In the meantime, he is soliciting a formal recommendation from the S.T.A.C. to review the available scientific data and make its own assessment about the prospect of granting federally subsidized care to 9/11 victims with certain forms of cancer.
The S.T.A.C. is expected to vote on the issue at the February meeting and is required by N.I.O.S.H. to submit the recommendation by March 2. “We’re not necessarily required to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” explained Ward. “We can respond with the best advice we think we can give at that time.”
Ward continued, “The issues related to the long-term health effects of exposures that occurred in and around at the W.T.C. are scientifically complex and evolving, particularly as new studies and information becomes available. One of the roles of the advisory committee is to respond to issues as they arise, bring our various perspectives to the evidence, and draw conclusions based on the data that we have.” Ultimately, however, all decisions pertaining to the Zadroga bill rest in the hands of of Dr. Howard.
Feal and other 9/11 victims and health advocates are closely watching from the sidelines and continue to press for definitive, immediate action. “They’re playing God right now,” said Feal of the S.T.A.C. “You know the saying, ‘It’s better late than never?’ Here’s a chance for them to prove it.”
In the meantime, N.I.O.S.H. has begun to finance scientific research of cancer and other health conditions thought to be linked to 9/11 exposure. The law directly allocates $15 million for the cause in 2012 alone. “Until the law was passed, there was really no [federal] money set aside specifically for promoting research,” noted N.I.O.S.H. Spokesperson Fred Blosser. Of the $15 million, $11.25 million is available for new research projects, while the remaining sum will continue to fund eight studies that were budgeted last year, including one being conducted by Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and another by the FDNY.
Meanwhile, Feal vows that he and his supported wouldn’t rest until cancer is incorporated in the bill. “If they choose not to,” he said, “don’t worry about Occupy Wall Street; it’s going to be, ‘Occupy Ground Zero.’”
For a more detailed agenda of the S.T.A.C.’s February meeting, visit www.cdc.gov/NIOSH/topics/wtc/stac/meetings/ in the coming days.