Clearing the Air

Sorting solid claims about the 9/11 toxic cloud from the obscuring haze of uncertainty

A city report estimated that the cost of medical care for Ground Zero workers could be as high as $392 million a year. A federal estimate placed the total at $230 million to $283 million a year, but also said the total could be much higher—$400 million, or even as much as $700 million—if a lot more workers sign up. Even at $283 million a year, the costs, over 20 years, total $5.7 billion.

The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund has already paid out $573.2 million for 1,377 asthma and other respiratory claims. Some are seeking to reopen that fund.

There is also a $1 billion federal insurance fund set aside to pay out judgments in the event the city loses in court to the thousands of people suing. In July, a group of responders sued the fund (known as the WTC Captive Insurance Co.), demanding that the money be released.

World Trade Center fire/ terrorism September 11, 2001. NYPD officer muster a Chambers and Church Streets.
Richard B. Levine
World Trade Center fire/ terrorism September 11, 2001. NYPD officer muster a Chambers and Church Streets.

The feds have contributed $125 million for study and treatment, and they've allocated another $50 million earlier this year. A bill that would provide for another $55 million has passed the House and is now in the hands of the Senate.

The estimate to continue the current programs just for first responders and New York City residents is $178 million a year. That money wouldn't include people outside New York City or federal workers.

But Carpenter, the SUNY Albany epidemiologist, and others say that the government has little choice but to fund care and treatment—in other words, to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Waiting for conclusive proof would come far too late for people who need help now.

"I think we are going to see people develop illnesses 20 to 30 years down the road," Carpenter says. "I think we need to follow everyone exposed."

"The commitment to all of the workers has to remain a sustained commitment over time," adds Thorpe, the city deputy health commissioner.

Samet, the Johns Hopkins researcher, argues that the government must take a long-term view: "What government should be doing here is the best possible surveillance and tracking, so they can say whether this is different from any other population. That's not going to be easy."

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