Exposure related health conditions still trouble 9/11 first responders 20 years later

For more information on Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), please visit https://copdsos.org/

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. On that day and for weeks after, first responders at the World Trade Center worked to clear rubble and to search for remains.

    Many were stricken with debilitating illness, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

    Amna Nawaz has more on the challenges first responders are still facing.

    But let's start by hearing from some of them in their own words, brought to us by the Dorney-Koppel Foundation.

  • Man:

    It was very, very bad. It was like a sandstorm. I have been in sandstorms. It was like that. You couldn't see three or four feet in front of you.

  • Man:

    It took two weeks for that dust to get out of my work boots.

  • Man:

    I went home, and my teeth felt like I was — had sand in my mouth. I was blowing my nose for weeks, and blood was coming out of it. But I just kept going back, and then I was every night for three months.

  • Man:

    After the Twin Towers went down, that area was a disastrous area. And the air wasn't healthy enough for the people that were living or working there. And I was there every day.

  • Man:

    The air quality wasn't what it should have been. We all knew it, in spite of what we were told. We went in anyway.

  • Man:

    I think it was the Environmental — the Department of Environmental Protection came out and said, the air is fine. It's healthy to breathe. Don't worry about the air.

  • Man:

    They told us the air was clean, that it was OK.

  • Man:

    They said, everything will be all right, you know? And everything wasn't all right.

  • Man:

    We all knew the site was contaminated, no matter what government agency said it wasn't and that it was safe. That was not true. We all knew it. All of the first responders knew it, and all of us knew we weren't safe. But we did our job.

  • Man:

    It took a few years. I started to notice that I couldn't go as long, like, say walking or, like, say, running, because I love sports. And I noticed that my breathing was slowing down then.

  • Man:

    I was fooling myself, because I would think there was nothing wrong, and I would just take some time off from work. A year later, two years later, I started to realize that it is not going away. It's not getting any better.

  • Man:

    When the doctor told me, "You have COPD," I said, what is that?

    I had no clue what it was until he explained it to me.

  • Man:

    I can't even wash my own cars now. I used to wash my own car. I used to rake my own leaves, keep my house nice and neat. I can't do any of that now.

  • Man:

    If it is under 20 degrees out, I can't go outside my house, because it feels like I'm inhaling broken glass.

  • Man:

    I can't play (Expletive deleted) sports no more. Seeing people running around as I pass by, seeing them on the field throwing the football around, running — one day, I'm hoping to have grandchildren, and I want to be able to do that with them. But who knows what it holds.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There's more information about those suffering from this disease at COPDSOS.org.

    Now, COPD is just one of many illnesses plaguing first responders since the attacks of 9/11. Among the initial first responders and those who worked or lived in the area, more than 4, 600 have died since that day. It's still not clear how many of those deaths were linked to exposure at the attack sites for weeks and months afterward. Since 9/11, more than 80,000 responders have sought medical help.

    For a closer look, I'm joined by Dr. Steven Markowitz. For eight years, he ran the World Trade Center Health Clinic in Queens, New York. And from 2011 to 2020, he served on the Scientific and Technical Advisory Board of the World Trade Center Health Program. He's an epidemiologist who now works with the advocacy group 9/11 Health Watch.

    Dr. Markowitz, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you for making the time.

    That World Trade Center health program, it is a federal program. Just, for people who aren't familiar, give us a sense of the scale and scope of it. What kind of support does it provide? How many people has it helped?

    Dr. Steven Markowitz, 9/11 Health Watch: Well, it serves over 110,000 people at this point.

    Three-quarters of them are responders who worked at Ground Zero, firefighters, police, and the like. And the remainder, about a quarter of them, are neighborhood residents or survivors. So, it is a very large program, providing both routine annual monitoring for most of them, but also care for selected health conditions that have been deemed to be related to 9/11 work or residents near 9/11.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And 20 years later, do you have your arms around the universe of people who need help? In other words, is everyone who is eligible for that support already reached out, part of the program?

  • Dr. Steven Markowitz:

    Well, you know, actually, in the last eight months or so, there are over 500 people each month who are joining the program.

    So that means there clearly is an untapped population. Even though over 110,000 are members now of this program, clearly, there are more who could be served.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about the medical impact? What is sort of range of health conditions you're dealing with? We just heard about COPD and its devastating impact. We have heard about stories of cancer linked to that day. What else?

  • Dr. Steven Markowitz:

    Well, that — about 40 percent have aerodigestive conditions.

    So what this means is either asthma or other upper respiratory problems, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, acid reflux, about 40 percent. That's about 45,000 people in that program. Cancer is a common problem. Over 20,000 responders and residents in the program have developed and been treated for cancer.

    An additional 20,000 people have mental health problems, mainly post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety, and a range of other conditions as well.

    So, the majority of people in the program have one or more of these certified health conditions.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, the program was set up for a 90-year duration, right? But there are now concerns it's going to run out of money by 2024 or 2025.

    How did that happen? And what more is needed now?

  • Dr. Steven Markowitz:

    Well, it happened because Congress did its best to estimate what kind of funding would be needed over a certain period of time.

    But, in fact, more people have gotten ill and more people have joined the program than expected. And those illnesses are very costly. Now, the health care that's given for the responders and the residents is very good health care. It's excellent care.

    And, in fact, there was just a recent research study looking at cancer among the program participants has demonstrated that they do better in this program than they would have if they were part of the general population of New York state, in fact, 28 percent better in terms of cancer outcome, either cure and or long-term survival.

    So the program is providing excellent care. It costs money. It means that, if the money runs out in 2024 or '25, that the program will be — won't be able to continue. That's a big problem.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Some folks may remember, back in 2019, it took former "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart publicly shaming Congress to get funds reauthorized for the program.

    Are you confident that it will get the funds it needs now?

  • Dr. Steven Markowitz:

    I am confident because I think people understand.

    The other thing is that the people who are cared for in this program, they're really all over the country. I mean, the majority are here in New York and New Jersey and Connecticut, but they're all — there are thousands of people in Florida who are part of this program, thousands of people in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia.

    So they're really spread throughout the country. It's a national care program. So I think people — I think people in Congress will understand that.

    The other thing I should mention is that it's 20 years now. Now, most toxins don't cause problems right away. The toxins that cause chronic conditions like cancer, neurologic diseases, et cetera, they normally wait 15 or 20 years before they cause their problems.

    Now, in this program, we have seen an accelerated development of problems. But the worrisome now — thing now is, now that we have hit 20 years, is that, if these toxins act like they normally do, then we have to be very careful, very vigilant about the health of these program participants, and make sure that, if new problems develop, that we catch it early.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Twenty years later, we can only hope those who need the help can get it.

    That is Dr. Steven Markowitz, board member of the advocacy group 9/11 Health Watch.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Dr. Steven Markowitz:

    Thank you very much.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we certainly do hope they can get the help that they need.

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