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It's time to care for first responders

August 13, 2006—Last week brought two searing reminders of 9/11: The foiled terrorist plot to blow up aircraft bound for the United States and the opening of "World Trade Center," a film that captures the carnage and courage of that devastating day five years ago. Unfortunately there's another reminder of 9/11 playing out, this one more quietly.

People who helped secure, search and clear the mountain of rubble left when the Twin Towers collapsed are getting sick. Some are dying. Respiratory maladies are the most common now. But nobody knows what conditions might eventually afflict people who spent weeks inhaling the toxic dust that clouded the air and coated the ground in lower Manhattan.

There are programs monitoring the health of some responders - for instance, one run by the Fire Department of New York City and others coordinated by Mt. Sinai Medical Center, where at least half those screened have been found to need some treatment. The physical status of all the 40,000 firefighters, police, workers and volunteers who did the job at Ground Zero, as well as affected area residents and schoolchildren, needs to be evaluated. Washington should identify those people, assess their lung function and general health, monitor changes over time, and ensure that treatment is available if needed.

The cost to accomplish all that is uncertain, said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) who, along with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and others, is pushing Washington for more resources. The illnesses of people already in treatment appear severe and persistent, and other pathologies could be slow to develop. The only way to establish the eventual medical need and cost is to monitor those affected. So far, federal money has been grudgingly granted and slow to arrive.

In February, Dr. John Howard, Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, was tapped to coordinate the federal response. March saw the approval of $75 million from Washington, which should be available soon. That's a start, but it's not enough to assess the physical toll over 20 or 30 years and ensure treatment.

The plot to blow 10 airliners out of the sky was a scary reminder of the threat of terrorism. And by telling the personal stories of two cops maimed and buried when the towers collapsed around them, "World Trade Center" celebrates the nobility of those who answered the call when the nation needed them. Washington should do no less for them now.

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