For Cancer-Stricken, 9/11 Health Benefits Are Just Out of Reach

Kirk Arsenault, 47, was a top-rate demolisher when he was hired to remove debris at Ground Zero after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Now, he says he takes 27 types of medication to treat a host of ailments – including thyroid and lymph node cancer – and has crippling medical debt. And the release of a review this week that found no link between the terror attacks and cancer could mean he won't be eligible for compensation from the Zadroga Act.

“Out of all the friends I worked with at Ground Zero, a good portion of them have different types of cancers, whereas my friends who didn’t work at Ground Zero, don’t have the cancers. I don’t see how hard it is for them to make the connection to it,” Arsenault told WNYC.

An analysis released this week found no link between exposure to World Trade Center debris and cancer, meaning Arsenault would not be eligible to receive any of the $4.3 billion in funds for sickened responders, volunteers and residents as part of the Zadroga Act.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health examined 18 studies, five of which were peer reviewed, and found, “insufficient evidence exists at this time to propose a rule to add cancer, or a certain type of cancer, to the List of WTC-Related Health Conditions.”

Arsenault spent eight weeks on site and never received a proper respirator, he said. He asked for one when he arrived, but it never came, and he never pushed for one, he said.

The decision still haunts him: “Every single day, I regret it everyday,” he said.

Arsenault, who lives in Boston, said he is more than $50,000 in debt from hospital bills and has paid $20,000 for medication out of pocket in the last five years.

His only son has entered the ROTC to help pay for college, but he’s not sure how he will pay for his 15-year-old daughter’s tuition.

He said he sold his house, cashed out one of his two retirement plans and drained his children’s college fund paying hospital bills.

“Things that I was trying to help my children out with for later on in life, and if the Zadroga bill [accepted cancer claims], I might be able to help them with that,” he said.

Laura Picurro's husband, Joe, was an iron worker that volunteered at Ground Zero for 28 days. She was later saddled with more than $80,000 in hospital bills.

Joe was never officially diagnosed with cancer, but died of Superior Vena Cava, which is often linked to cancer. He suffered from various respiratory ailments, and was on 40 medications when he died at age 43 last September, his wife said.

Picurro said she was in disbelief when she heard the news about this week’s report.

“For them now to pull this, how long is this going to take for them? How many more responders are going to have to die?” she said.

The Picurros were awarded $500 a month from the Volunteer Workers Compensation Fund, but it hardly made a dent in their bills.

A New Jersey charity also provided $2,000 a month for the family, but it only covered the cost of Joe’s medication, not food or any other bills. Laura said he would often sacrifice his medication for food for the family.

“He would pick and choose what medications he would get filled, to make sure there was food on the table, what we needed to just survive. As he got sicker and sicker that’s how he lived,” Laura said.

The family cashed out their daughter’s college fund, sold their wedding rings, sold Joe’s car and his father's and his sister’s cars, burned through their savings, and maxed out two of three credit cards.

The World Trade Center Health Registry, which released the report, is analyzing exposure in 71,000 people, but said it often takes five to 20 years for cancer to develop.

The study did note that it has not ruled out the possibility of a causal association linking exposure to debris and cancer and said scientists expect a second review to be released in mid-2012, and will continue to study the link “as long as the Registry is funded.”