25 Investigates: Health concerns persist for 9/11 first responders from New England

BOSTON — They selflessly and valiantly rushed to Ground Zero to help save lives when the World Trade Center towers fell 20 years ago.

Now, some New England first responders are bravely fighting to save their own lives.

25 Investigates reviewed data from the largest federal program that studies and treats 9/11 first responders and survivors and found that more than half of them have a Ground Zero exposure-related sickness.

Among them are 345 men and women from Massachusetts and 104 from New Hampshire. Connecticut, with 621, had the most first responders from New England in the program. Rhode Island, Maine and Vermont had 67, 66 and 44 respectively.

Acton Deputy Fire Chief Anita Arnum is one of them.

She spent two weeks at Ground Zero with the Massachusetts Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Team from Beverly. The unit was the first Federal Emergency Management Team to arrive in New York City.

Arnum said she’s seen a lot in her long career but nothing compares to the 9/11 aftermath.

The horrific scene, the acrid smell and the courage of so many all left lasting impressions. In particular, she recalls the dust and particles in the air, and the one decision that she believes may have changed the course of her life.

“I get teased a bit because they’ll say ‘Hey, look at every picture. She was wearing her mask. She’s the only one that wears a mask all the time,” she said.

Arnum told 25 Investigates her decision to wear a mask during her time at Ground Zero may have spared her from serious health effects.

“I kept saying to them ‘I’m not worried about today and I’m not worried about tomorrow. I’m worried about 20 years from tomorrow,’” she recalls.

At the time, many first responders did not wear masks. Initially, the federal government said they didn’t need to and that air quality at Ground Zero was safe.

“The concentrations are such that they don’t pose a health hazard. Were going to make sure everyone is safe,” Christine Todd Whitman, then administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency said just days after the attacks.

That assessment turned out to be incorrect.

The dust was highly toxic with pulverized concrete, asbestos and even benzene from the jet fuel carried by the planes that hit the towers.

Whitman has since apologized and has said the EPA did they best it could with the information it had at the time.

“When we realized what these people have been exposed to, it became clear to us that we’re in it for the long haul,” said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, an epidemiologist who directs the Global Public Health Program at Boston College. “Cancer has a long incubation period. When a person is exposed to asbestos or benzene, the cancer doesn’t show up right away. But after 10 or 15 years, those cancers begin to increase in number and we’re seeing them now.”

Landrigan helped establish the World Trade Center Health Program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. The program provides free care to all participants.

He said thousands of new people enroll every year, with problems that range from mild respiratory issues to deadly cancers. There is no deadline to sign up.

Many Ground Zero first responders also continue to struggle with mental health issues. According to Landrigan, World Trade Center Health Program participants have roughly four times the rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) compared to the general population.

Deputy Fire Chief Arnum said she hasn’t experienced any negative health effects from Ground Zero and is grateful.

“Unfortunately, we’ve lost some members due to cancers,” she said. “I could be filling out the papers for myself one day. And if you dwell too much on that, it could be terrifying. So I try not to dwell on it.”

Two years ago, Congress passed the Never Forget the Heroes Act. It provides compensation to first responders, survivors and victims’ families until 2090.