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Ailing responders may not be covered by WTC health act

Not all diseases linked to 9/11 soot

Retired New York police officers John Walcott (left) and Richard Volpe both have diseases that they tie to 9/11. Retired New York police officers John Walcott (left) and Richard Volpe both have diseases that they tie to 9/11. (Craig Ruttle/ Associated Press)
By David B. Caruso
Associated Press / January 17, 2011

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NEW YORK — There is no doubt that Richard Volpe is sick, and no doubt that the former police detective spent Sept. 11, 2001, breathing in clouds of soot at the World Trade Center.

Yet that is no guarantee that Volpe, or many others like him, will qualify for a substantial share of the $2.78 billion Congress has set to compensate people who fell ill after being exposed to ground zero toxins.

Like thousands of other rescue and recovery workers, Volpe suffers from an ailment that is not expressly covered by the law.

Only a few diseases were singled out by name in the act, including asthma, certain types of lung disease, and a handful of other respiratory ailments.

They were included because research has suggested there is a link between those illnesses and the tons of caustic dust that blanketed lower Manhattan after the twin towers collapsed on 9/11.

Federal administrators still have to decide whether to cover other conditions, like cancer, where there is less hard evidence of a tie to ground zero toxins.

Volpe’s problem, a kidney disease called IgA nephropathy, is among those that haven’t yet been linked to the dust.

“I’m hoping that when they set up the parameters . . . my most serious illness is going to be included,’’ said Volpe, who also suffers from mild respiratory problems.

“I got diagnosed at 34 years old. I was as healthy as I have ever been. To me, it’s not a coincidence,’’ he said of his exposure to the ash and dust and the sudden onset of his symptoms.

Volpe’s old partner in the detective bureau, John Walcott, is in a similar situation. He was diagnosed in 2003 with acute myelogenous leukemia.

There has been tremendous pressure from first responders to add at least some types of cancer to the list of conditions presumed to be caused by trade center dust. Some of the police officers, firefighters, and construction workers who campaigned hardest for the law suffer from some form of cancer.

Yet, scientists say that so far they have been unable to link cancer to the dust, and although there are many theories of the ways the soot might have triggered the disease in some people, there might not be solid evidence one way or another for many years.

To Walcott, an omission of cancer from the program would be inconceivable.

“They have to add it,’’ Walcott said. “If they don’t, they’re going to have another 5,000 lawsuits on their hands. Everybody I talk to says, ‘Don’t worry about it. It will be covered.’ ’’

The task of deciding who qualifies for compensation, and who doesn’t, will eventually fall the program’s special master, who has yet to be appointed.

Senator Charles Schumer of New York has already suggested the job should go to Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who oversaw the original compensation fund for 9/11 victims.

This administrator — one of two — will have discretion over the cash payments that are to be distributed to people made sick by the dust, but will probably be guided by rules created over the next few months by the Justice Department and Department of Health and Human Services.

More than 55,000 people who either worked at the trade center site or were exposed to the dust in Lower Manhattan are enrolled in a medical monitoring program.

Of those, about 17,000 received some type of medical treatment within the past year, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The people getting care have blamed hundreds of different ailments on trade center toxins, including heart attacks, skin cancer, and chronic cough.

A separate administrator overseeing a companion $1.5 billion health program for responders will also have the power to put additional diseases on the list of ailments for which the government shoulders treatment costs.

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