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BY COLIN MIXSON
The looming Dec. 18, 2020 deadline to file claims with the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund ignores the fact that people will continue dying from exposure to the terrorist attack’s toxic fallout with diseases that don’t manifest until years — even decades — after that arbitrary cut-off date, according to victims’ advocates, who warn that cancer doesn’t grow by Washington’s clock.
“We’re seeing more people die, more people getting serious, aggressive cancers than ever before, and something tells me it’s not going to stop on Dec. 18, 2020,” said Michael Barasch, an attorney representing more than 10,000 victims, including first responders and Downtown residents. “Cancer has no deadline.”
Shortly after the terrorist attack that claimed nearly 3,000 lives on that day 17 years ago, the federal Environmental Protection Agency lured an estimated 300,000 workers and 25,000 residents, in addition to thousands of students and first responders, back to Lower Manhattan with a promise that the area was safe to inhabit.
But in truth, a cocktail of pulverized glass, lead, chromium, and other carcinogens still haunted neighborhoods south of Canal Street until May 2002, when the federal government years later determined that Downtown’s air had finally became breathable.
Hundreds of people have since perished as a result some 68 different cancers and other fatal illnesses directly linked to the attack’s deadly fallout — including Police Officer James Zadroga, whose death in 2006 would inspire congress to pass the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act in 2010, establishing both a free healthcare program and a settlement fund to redress the pain and loss of income due to unemployment caused in part by Uncle Sam’s negligence.
The World Trade Center Health Program was extended by 70 years in 2015 following a national advocacy campaign spearheaded by comedian John Stewart, who used his program “The Daily Show” to shame holdout members of congress to support the reauthorization bill, but the funnyman couldn’t arm-twist legislators into giving the Victim’s Compensation Fund the same treatment, and that program was only extended by five years, to 2020.
Essentially, congress declared that victims who develop cancers or other non-fatal but life-altering conditions due to Ground Zero fallout more than two years and three months from now should be entitled to free health care — but not compensation for their physical suffering and loss of employment, according to one advocate.
“The health program was extended for 70 years and the VCF was only extended for five — what is wrong with this picture? These people were harmed by the federal government’s lies and negligence,” said Kimberly Flynn of 9/11 Environmental Action.
To drive home the point, enrollment rates in both programs have only risen in recent years, with the healthcare program showing a slow but steady increase in enrollment rates over a two year period, while the Victims Compensation Fund saw 9,155 more claims filed as of Aug. 2018 than in the same period last year.
The roughly 10,000 students who prematurely returned to Downtown schools following the attack, now in their 20s and 30s, are among the most anxious to see an extension of the Victims Compensation Fund. Many of them already suffer asthma, but worry that they will also eventually face cancers and other diseases that won’t be diagnosed until years after the arbitrary 2020 deadline passes, according to an advocate for former Downtown students.
“For us, it’s tremendously important,” said Lila Nordstrom, a senior at Stuyvesant High School during the attack and founder of StuyHealth. “We’re probably the population with the most to lose from the VCF closing this early. We’re the most likely to keep developing conditions at a rate that keeps increasing.”
As advocates gear up to push congress for an extension after the November election, Flynn encouraged anyone who lived, worked, studied, or was a first responder south of Canal Street at any point from Sept. 12, 2001 to May 30, 2002 to register with the Victim’s Compensation Fund — regardless of whether or not you have a 9/11 related condition — at www.vcf.gov/register.html.