LOWER MANHATTAN — Hundreds of 9/11 first responders could receive compensation for their cancer treatment after an advisory panel voted Thursday that the disease should be covered under the Zadroga Act.
The 15-member panel, appointed by Congress to review research and decide which health conditions are linked to toxins at Ground Zero following the Sept. 11 attacks, believes research clearly shows a link between 9/11 exposure and cancer, said panel member Catherine McVay Hughes.
"The committee agreed that cancer should be included [in the Zadroga Act]," said Hughes, who is also vice chairwoman of Community Board 1. "This is a major step in the right direction."
The panel will now draft a list of all the specific cancers they believe ought to be covered. Based on the existing research, the preliminary list discussed at Thursday's meeting would include blood cancers, lymphoma, leukemia, lung cancer, mesothelioma, multiple myeloma and others, Hughes said.
The panel, called the World Trade Center Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee, will submit a final recommendation on cancer to the federal government within the next couple of weeks.
Dr. John Howard, the World Trade Center health program administrator for the federal government, will make the final decision by early April on which cancers, if any, should be covered, Hughes said.
If cancer is officially included in the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, those who are sick with cancer and the families of those who have died from the disease will be able to apply to the $2.8 billion 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund to cover their medical expenses, as well as pain and suffering.
"Thank God," said Louis Ferrara, 40, a Rockland County EMT who developed throat and tongue cancer after working for 72 hours at Ground Zero. "I could pay a lot of my medical bills. I've got creditors hounding me day in and day out."
Ferrara, who also had a brain tumor removed several years ago, owes tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills, and one hospital is threatening to sue him if he doesn't immediately pay $16,000, he said. Doctors recently discovered a problem with his aorta in his heart, and a test Friday morning will determine if he needs even more surgery, Ferrara said.
"At least I can go into this catheterization tomorrow morning knowing that some compensation is coming," Ferrara said. "It's one less aggravation I have to worry about."
John Devlin, 50, a Ground Zero machine operator whose throat cancer is in remission, was pleased to hear of the panel's decision.
But he wasn't ready to celebrate just yet.
"It's a hell of a step forward," Devlin said. "But until they actually sign it — there have been so many hurdles at the last minute, so until the government actually agrees to it..."
While Devlin said he would welcome help paying his medical bills, it's more important to him that the federal government finally admit that the air at Ground Zero was not safe to breathe.
"The biggest thing is that they recognize that they lied to us down there," Devlin said.
Numerous studies have shown that those who were exposed to 9/11 toxins — which included heavy metals, asbestos and fine concrete particles — have an elevated risk of contracting cancer.
Dr. Philip Landrigan, a dean at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, told the World Trade Center health panel Wednesday that a yet-to-be-published study by his team shows a 14-percent increase in cancer rates among rescue workers.
The years-long fight to include cancer in the Zadroga Act has earned the support of many politicians and public figures, including talk-show host Jon Stewart.
On Thursday evening, Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler and Peter King and Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand all released statements praising the 9/11 health panel's decision on cancer, calling it an important first step.
Panel member Hughes — who advocated for lower Manhattan residents, students and office workers to be included in the Zadroga Act alongside the first responders and recovery workers — said she was also glad to finally see some progress on getting cancer covered.
"It's been a very, very long battle," she said.