Congress urged to fund care for 9/11 responders

Star-Ledger Staff
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

They inhaled finely ground glass, pulverized concrete and hydrochloric acid. Some pulled off their respirators so they could crawl through tunnels of debris, or communicate with their command center.

Seven years after the attack on the World Trade Center, the men and women who worked at Ground Zero still suffer from serious respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses -- with no end in sight. In some cases, people are getting worse as they age.

At a gathering yesterday, doctors, politicians and first responders from New Jersey called on the government to continue funding efforts to treat and study the long-term consequences facing those who dug through the rubble of the World Trade Center.

A clinical center in New Jersey that expected to treat and monitor about 200 people is now caring for 1,300, many of them firefighters and police officers, as well as iron and construction workers. They are being treated for asthma, sarcoidosis and pulmonary fibrosis, as well as acid reflux, sinusitis and sleep apnea.

"We can provide the complicated diagnostic tests, specialist care and expensive medications for these conditions," said Iris G. Udasin, a principal investigator of the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program.

Udasin directs the center in Piscataway, a joint program of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and Rutgers University. It is one of several places created to treat and monitor World Trade Center first responders.

After the attack, some 90,000 liters of jet fuel created a plume of black smoke containing toxic compounds, such as benzene and metals. Also airborne were microscopic glass, asbestos and lead, according to congressional testimony.

A bill pending in Congress to continue funding for these centers is named for James Zadroga, a New York City police detective who was at Ground Zero. Zadroga's father, a former police chief of North Arlington, told the story yesterday of his son's heroism at the World Trade Center and his eventual illness and death in January of 2006.

Joe Zadroga said his son worked 400 hours at Ground Zero, beginning the day of the attack. His wife was eight months pregnant at the time. Zadroga, who was previously healthy, began coughing while still working at the site, and his illness got progressively worse. He began to go blind, suffer memory loss and eventually was bedridden with respiratory illness

"People kept saying, 'You have to go back to work.' My son could not even drive," the father said. The Ocean County Medical Examiner's Office said in an autopsy that Zadroga, 34, died from breathing toxic particles at Ground Zero.

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-6th Dist.), pushing for the bill yesterday, said the legislation would provide long-term funding to allow the centers to continue to evaluate emerging methods of treatment.

"We need to screen, treat and put together research to find out what happened and the best way to treat people," Pallone said.

He did not have an estimate on what the bill would cost, but last year, the effort to monitor and treat WTC responders was $108 million, a Pallone staff member said. According to congressional testimony, more than 51,000 responders from across the country have enrolled in the WTC health program, out of about 91,000 people involved in rescue, recovery and clean-up.

Detective Thomas McHale, a Port Authority police office at the World Trade Center, said he has scar tissue in his lungs and has been diagnosed with asthma, atrial fibrillation and an esophogeal condition that can cause cancer if not treated.

"I'm feeling better because I'm being properly treated here," said McHale, who continues to work. He said he does not like to be called a hero.

"The heroes are no longer with us," he said. "People like me, we just went in and did our jobs and did them well."