NEW YORK — In a win for thousands of 9/11 responders who are battling cancer, federal officials said Friday that about 50 types of cancer will soon be covered under the $4.3 billion Zadroga Act.
Firefighters, police officers, construction workers and Downtown residents and students who contracted cancer after breathing in toxic dust on 9/11 will soon receive free medical treatment subsidized by the federal government and will also be able to file a claim under the $2.8 billion Victim Compensation Fund, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said Friday.
The NIOSH ruling will go into effect after a 30-day public review process that begins June 11, the agency said.
"We recognize how personal the issue of cancer and all of the health conditions related to the World Trade Center tragedy are to 9/11 responders, survivors and their loved ones," WTC Program Administrator John Howard in a statement on Friday.
Friday's ruling marks the first time the federal government has acknowledged a link between exposure to 9/11 toxins and an increased risk of cancer. The Zadroga Act previously did not cover any cancers, a decision advocates have been fighting hard to reverse.
NIOSH decided to extend coverage to all the cancers recommended by an expert medical advisory panel in March, including cancers affecting the respiratory and digestive systems, thyroid cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, eye cancer, oral cavity cancer, urinary tract cancer, mesothelioma, melanoma, leukemia, lymphoma, soft tissue sarcomas and all childhood and rare cancers.
The panel recommended against including brain, pancreatic and prostate cancer, saying there was not enough evidence connecting them to 9/11, and NIOSH's ruling did not include them either. More cancers could be added later as new scientific research emerges.
Those who are sick hailed NIOSH's decision as a much-needed lifeline.
"Thank God," said Louis Ferrara, 41, a Rockland County EMT who developed a cancerous throat tumor after spending 72 hours at Ground Zero. "I'm very happy they finally added it. It took a long time."
Ferrara, who fears that his cancer may be returning, said he hopes to receive enough money from the federal government to pay the tens of thousands of dollars he owes in medical bills.
Sheila Birnbaum, the special master of the fund, has said there may not be enough money in it to meet the full claims of all those who apply, especially if cancer is included.
If the fund runs out of money, advocates said Friday that they would return to Congress to fight for more funding.
John Feal, a 9/11 recovery worker who founded the FealGood Foundation to advocate on behalf of the sick men and women who worked alongside him, said he was thrilled with the federal government's decision, but he wished it had come sooner.
"I want to call it a victory, but it's bittersweet because we lost so many good people [to cancer already]," Feal said. "I've been on the phone with those who lost loved ones [to cancer]. I wish they were here to see this."
Feal said 9/11 responders with cancer will begin receiving free medical treatment as soon as August at the WTC Centers of Excellence, clinics that specialize in 9/11-related illnesses.
Those with cancer will also now be able to file a claim with the federal Victim Compensation Fund, which compensates first responders and Downtown residents, students and workers for their out-of-pocket medical treatments, lost wages and pain and suffering.
Catherine McVay Hughes, vice chairwoman of Community Board 1 and a member of the expert panel that recommended adding cancers to the Zadroga Act, praised Howard's decision Friday.
"This is the best possible news for first responders, recovery workers and Downtown residents and students," Hughes said. "This decision respects medical science and shows that the government stands with Americans who were injured by our enemies."
The politicians who fought for the Zadroga Act's passage also cheered Friday's news.
"We are thrilled by Dr. Howard's recommendation today to include all the Science/Technical Advisory Committee's suggested cancers for coverage in the World Trade Center Health Program," U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler and Peter T. King said in a joint statement. "It further strengthens our legislation, which we all worked so hard to pass, and helps pave the way for expanding the scope of available medical care and compensation for those sickened by the toxins at Ground Zero."