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Increase in number of people dying from 9/11-related illnesses could result in victims’ fund running out of money

9/11 attack victims' names on the perimeter of a reflecting pool at the World Trade Center site in New York, New York, NY, USA on September 11, 2017. (Albin Lohr-Jones/Sipa USA/TNS)

The flood of people coming down with illnesses stemming from the toxic dust kicked up by the 9/11 terror attacks has been so great that the $7.3 billion dedicated to sufferers could run out before everyone has been helped, the Daily News has learned.

The 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, which is responsible for providing financial assistance to those suffering from illnesses caused by Ground Zero contaminants, is already showing signs of strain.

“We do periodic assessments of our data,” VCF Special Master Rupa Bhattacharyya told the Daily News. The assessments, she said, create projections that will determine if the fund will be able to help everyone before it expires on Dec. 18, 2020.

“Looking at the data more recently, I’m starting to get a little concerned,” she said.

Bhattacharyya wouldn’t say if the fund is running out of money. She said the VCF plans to publish its updated projections in the next few weeks “and maybe seek some public comment on changes that will have to be made regarding our policies and procedures.”

Survivor advocates are concerned that, as the money peters out, those who file for compensation from now until the end will get less money than those who filed earlier with the same problems.

“I’m pretty confident that they will run out of money,” said 9/11 advocate John Feal. “But I don’t think people should be concerned right now. I bet my one kidney that we will get the VCF extended.”

Sources with knowledge of the VCF’s money woes said that a bill to extend the fund could be brought to Congress as early as next month.

Through Aug. 31, the VCF has reviewed 38,502 compensation claims from 9/11 illness sufferers this year — a nearly 28 percent jump over the 30,081 claims it took in last year over the same period. Of the 38,502, about 20,000 claims already have been approved with payouts that can range up to $200,000, depending on the illness.

The VCF has also seen a 94 percent jump in “deceased claims” — requests for compensation by estates or family members of a 9/11 survivor who has already succumbed to illness. As of the end of August, 720 families have sought some form of financial compensation this year. In 2017, about 371 families did so in the same time frame.

And these numbers could continue to rise in the next few years, Bhattacharyya said.

“There are diseases with long latency periods,” she said. “Mesothelioma is one that is talked about often, and you won’t even see it for 15 or 20 years. We won’t see those claims for a while.”

According to the website, an estimated 400 tons of asbestos — the microscopic fibers that cause mesothelioma — was used in the construction of the World Trade Center. All of it was released into the air when the buildings were pulverized into dust.

A source with knowledge of the assessment procedure said the VCF still has more than $3 billion in funding left to distribute, so any concerns Bhattacharyya might have are not imminent.

“We’re required by statute to periodically reassess our policies and procedures to make sure we are prioritizing the claimants with the most debilitating conditions,” the source said. “Her concerns are part of the periodic reassessment process that was built into the statute. It’s part of what the statute requires VCF to do.”

Scores of the people inhaled the dust as they sifted through the powder-caked debris looking for survivors and remains, in what is considered one of the worst environmental disasters in the United States.

“It was unprecedented in the U.S.,” said Dr. John Howard, administrator for the World Trade Center Health Program. “The acute number of fatalities on that day has not been surpassed, and the chronic health effects have people succumb to illnesses…it seems incomparable that any other disaster is close.

“We don’t want to see another one like this,” he said.

As of June, 88,484 first responders and survivors have registered with the World Trade Center Health Program.

Of that number, roughly 10,000 have some form of cancer that has been certified by the program.

“(That’s) 10,000 people that were either first responders or were in the trade union, or victims, survivors or volunteers,” former “Daily Show” host and 9/11-survivor advocate John Stewart told the Daily News. “I mean, this is an outrageous number.”

Howard said the health program has seen a “growth spurt” within the last year — including a 260 percent increase in those who either worked or lived at or around the site, who the program categorizes as “survivors.”

So many survivors have been coming through the door that the program has opened a new clinic on Franklin St. in Lower Manhattan that will see an estimated 750 patients a month.

According to the best estimates, 90,000 first responders showed up at the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the attack. An additional 400,000 survivors lived and worked in the area at the time.

Of that number, about 55,000 first responders and fewer than 20,000 survivors have registered with the World Trade Center Health Program — meaning thousands more could be signing up in the next few years.

“The numbers are real,” said Feal. “This is not getting better. It’s getting worse.”

Feal estimates that someone dies of a 9/11-related illness an average of every 2.7 days. Neither the VCF nor the World Trade Center Health Program keeps records on how many people have died of a 9/11-related illness, but Feal says the number is close to 2,100. By the 20th anniversary of 9/11, more people will have died of an illness stemming from Ground Zero than the 2,700 who died at the Twin Towers that day.

“More people will have cancer,” he said. “More people will have died, and that pains me.”

On Saturday, the FealGood Foundation will add 163 new names to its wall of 9/11 heroes in Nesconsent, L.I. They’re people who died of 9/11 illnesses — both survivors and first responders — since last September, when 141 names were added to the wall.

“It’s the most we’ve ever put on our wall,” said Feal, who in just the last two weeks has collected three more names for next year’s ceremony. “The 9/11 fraternity is shrinking.”

Feal showed up at Ground Zero a day after the terror attacks. He, too, inhaled the smoke and dust swirling around, but hasn’t gotten sick yet.

But tomorrow is another day.

“We’re all looking over our shoulder, asking ourselves, ‘When am I next?’ That’s the most prevalent conversation between survivors.”

And it didn’t have to be that way. Advocates say the federal government could have demanded first responders and volunteers wear masks so they didn’t have to breathe the toxic stew of death in — but they didn’t.

Instead, Christie Todd Whitman — administrator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency at the time — announced a few days after the attacks that the air was safe to breathe.

“Her moral compass was pointed in the wrong direction,” Feal said. “Ten thousand people are sick because of her words. If she didn’t say it, people wouldn’t have gotten sick. We weren’t given the respiratory and hazmat gear. Human life took a backseat to the almighty dollar.”

A call to Whitman for comment was not returned.

Stewart, who fought to get the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act passed — giving coverage to those afflicted with Ground Zero-related health woes for the next 75 years — tends to get indignant when someone mentions how the government said the air was safe to breathe.

“No scientist in their right mind, no environmental-protection person in their right mind (would have thought that),” Stewart said. “I’m not a professional, I just live near there — I knew how dangerous the air was.

“You couldn’t not know,” he said about the white dust that seemed to be everywhere in the weeks after the attack. “We had it all on our windows and cars. You could smell it for weeks and months. Every material that was at that site was pulverized and then burned, and anybody that was near there was inhaling it as fine atmospheric molecules.”

The New York Environmental Law and Justice Project was one of the first groups to perform independent environmental tests on the streets around Ground Zero.

Attorney Joel Kupferman and his team were called in after a police union reached out, claiming that some of their members were “spitting up blood,” he remembered.

“We grabbed some samples and came up with high levels of asbestos and fiberglass,” he said. “People were being exposed to dangerous carcinogens.”

He brought his findings to the city, state and federal government, but they cast his concerns aside.

“They said we were alarming everyone,” Kupferman said. “They didn’t say we were wrong, we were just alarming everyone.”

In the end, the streets were opened and everyone was allowed back into lower Manhattan to show that the city was standing up to terrorism, Kupferman recalled.

“The people who said we had to get back to work and stand up to evil made sure that thousands of people are unable to stand today,” Kupferman said. “By not pushing them back, they completed the evil that didn’t happen to these poor people the first time.

“There could have been a lot more intervention,” he said. “The question now is: Where are all those people that said things are OK?”

“I never believed the air was safe to breathe,” said retired FDNY Chief Richard Alles, who responded to the terror attacks. “The responsibility in passing that message contaminated and sickened hundreds of thousands of people, innocent people. People that worked there, office workers, schoolteachers.

“We have students that were children at the time with breast cancer,” said Alles, who plans to join Feal in getting the VCF funding extended.

“(Congress) would love us not to go back,” he said. “They would love it to expire. If (Feal, Stewart and others) hadn’t been as tenacious as they are…they wouldn’t have passed it in the first place. They would have preferred not to deal with it.

“Lives are at stake, so there is no margin for error,” Alles said.


(With Graham Rayman)


© 2018 New York Daily News

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