The decision earlier this month to include mesothelioma and 49 other cancers among the illnesses covered by the new 9/11 Health and Compensation fund may have been a popular one, but it left many scientists and epidemiologists questioning the wisdom.
The decision allows rescue workers, firefighters, police and local residents who lived near the World Trade Center when it was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, to qualify for substantial payouts if they were diagnosed with any of the cancers.
The $4.3 billion compensation fund previously was restricted to 12 specific ailments, mostly respiratory and digestive illnesses, according to a report by The Associated Press.
Scientists now are questioning whether the all-encompassing cancer decision is just another government giveaway, done for compassionate reasons or political purposes.
Many scientists say there is little research to prove that exposure to the toxic dust of 9/11 could have caused cancers so quickly, despite the toxicity that included 15 well-known carcinogens like asbestos, arsenic and formaldehyde.
Mesothelioma Usually Takes Decades to Develop
Mesothelioma, for example, normally has a latency period of 10 to 50 years between someone’s initial exposure to asbestos and the onset of obvious symptoms. Many of the other related cancers also take decades to develop.
“To imagine that there is strong evidence about any cancer resulting from 9/11 is naive in the extreme,” Donald Berry, a biostatistics profession at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, told AP.
“Clearly, this is a difficult decision, and primarily motivated by concern for a sympathetic population,” Dr. Alfred Neugut, a Columbia University epidemiologist told the New York Times. “The scientific evidence is certainly weak. Whether future evidence bears out the wisdom of this decision will have to be seen.”
Access to this latest compensation fund expires in 2016. The original Victim Compensation Fund paid out $7 billion for the nearly 3,000 deaths that resulted from the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
In 2010, Congress opened another $4.3 billion fund for anyone exposed to the toxic dust cloud that engulfed much of Lower Manhattan for weeks after the attack. Many workers labored in the rubble for months. And many were wearing insufficient respiratory protection while fires continued to smolder. Thousands of workers were sickened. Cancer, originally, was not covered.
Need for Umbrella Coverage
The final decision to cover the 50 cancers was made by Dr. John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, who adopted the guidelines provided him by a scientific and technical advisory committee.
Howard, a year before, had said there was not enough medical evidence to include cancer, but there was considerable public pressure from politicians and advocates to include it.
Cancers now covered include lung, breast, ovarian, bladder, urinary tract, oral, kidney and colon cancer, along with melanoma and mesothelioma. All childhood cancers and leukemia are covered, too. Among the most common cancer types, only prostate cancer was excluded.
According to the advisory committee report, thyroid cancer was added to the list because a higher-than-expected number of cases among firefighters were diagnosed. Thyroid cancer, in the past, was generally linked to radiation exposure or genetics.
Scientists Remain Skeptical
The skepticism surrounding the decision involves the impossibility of knowing exactly what caused the cancers being reported among people living or working in Lower Manhattan. According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated one in two men and one in three women will develop some form of cancer in their lifetimes.
Many slow developing cancers that started before 9/11 and some that began after 9/11 likely will be blamed on the World Trade Center disaster.
According to the AP report, another reason for skepticism with including cancer was the lack of cancer experts on the 17-member advisory committee. The majority of the panel included worker advocates and occupational physicians.
More than half of the $4.3 billion fund will be used to compensate people who sustained economic losses because of the illnesses. Family members of cancer patients who already died are included.
According to the report, 60,000 people have been enrolled in two different health programs for those who worked, or lived, near the disaster zone. An estimated 16,000 have been receiving regular treatments.
Registration for this compensation fund began in October, but the latest cancer provision will not become official until August after a final review.
Unless the deadline for applying is extended beyond 2016, many mesothelioma patients exposed to the asbestos from 9/11 will be excluded because their symptoms won’t emerge until decades later.