A $2.76 billion aid program for people sickened by World Trade Center dust should be expanded to include those who have at least some types of cancer, members of a government advisory panel said Thursday.
Congress set aside a huge pot of money last year to compensate and treat people exposed to the clouds of toxic soot released during the collapse of the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, but lawmakers concerned about runaway costs and illegitimate health claims also limited the program to people suffering from a relatively short list of illnesses, including asthma, acid reflux and certain chronic sinus problems.
So far, cancer hasn't made that list, mostly because scientists have yet to see strong evidence that people exposed to the dust are getting the disease at higher rates than the general public.
The scientific debate is still in its early stages, but at a meeting yesterday in Manhattan, members of the World Trade Center Health Program Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee said they thought evidence of a cancer link would eventually be found, given the sorts of toxins that were present at the site.
They agreed, with near unanimity, that it was reasonable to expand the program now while the research continues.
Waiting for harder evidence that could still be years or decades away could mean that deserving people are denied care when they need it most, said panel member Dr. William Rom, director of the division of pulmonary and critical care medicine at New York University's medical school.
"I just don't think we can wait that long," he said.
The committee was less resolved about which cancers to cover. Tens of thousands of people were exposed to the dust from the trade center's destroyed 110-story towers.
Many are now of an age when cancer is common. Some are suffering from types of cancer for which there is "no biological plausibility at all" of a trade-center tie, Rom said.
The committee's recommendation, now due by an extended deadline of April 2, is advisory only.