Dr. Benjamin Luft, director of the Stony Brook World Trade Center...

Dr. Benjamin Luft, director of the Stony Brook World Trade Center Health and Wellness Program, which is receiving $147 million in federal funding.

Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Stony Brook University’s World Trade Center Health and Wellness Program on Thursday said it had won $147 million in federal funding to continue and expand its work treating people with health problems related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

The eight-year contract will fund research and treatment of more than 13,000 active and retired police officers and rescue, recovery and cleanup workers at clinics in Commack and Mineola. The Mineola clinic will double in size with new funds going toward telehealth and data management, said Dr. Benjamin Luft, director of the program and its clinics. 

A spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s World Trade Center Health Program confirmed the award. 

John Feal, a demolition supervisor injured at Ground Zero who advocates for survivors, called the funding “vital."

“It ensures that those who go there are going to continue to get the best health care by the best experts,” he told Newsday, referring to the Stony Brook facility. “It ensures that anybody who gets their medications in the mail continues to get their medication in mail, and those who need specialty care for rare cancers are going to get the best care.”

Responders’ health care needs may be greater now than they were in the years after the attacks, Feal said.

“A 28-year-old responder with respiratory problems or cancer has a better chance of fighting illness than a 59-year-old,” the average age of responder survivors now. 

Luft’s perspective, as a clinician and researcher, was similar. The Stony Brook program now treats twice as many patients as it did a decade ago, with increasingly complex cases, he said. “Typically, you see a doctor, you go in with one problem — a heart problem or a kidney problem. Our patients have multiple systems involved, both psychologically as well as physically.”

Acute upper and lower respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases that afflicted many who worked on the pile have become chronic, Luft said, and more than 20 years after the attacks, clinicians are diagnosing cancers and cognitive impairments they believe may be tied to neurotoxicants in the air and dust the workers inhaled.

“It’s a whole set of diseases that only occur after a period of latency,” Luft said. 

In recent years, experts have reported a string of troubling findings about those late onset effects: Cancers likely related to Sept. 11 exposure doubled from 2019 to 2022, according to the CDC, and responders with chronic health conditions who contracted COVID-19 may have more serious and long-term illness from the virus, according to a study Luft co-authored earlier this year. 

“The sacrifice was real — it wasn’t free,” but there is reason for optimism, Luft said. “Now that we’ve been able to define many of these issues and problems and how they came about, we will have better ways to intervene, ways to mitigate the extent of these problems.”

Because the cohort of responders is “one of the largest and longest studied group of people who were exposed to a toxic event,” the research may someday also help people exposed to other disasters or conflict zones, he said.

“A lot of the generation of these toxins is due to these highly intense fires, the burning of plastics, computers and hi-tech types of equipment — that’s going to occur in all wars.” 

For Feal, the continued Stony Brook research also has a more immediate, practical value because it may result in new Sept. 11-related conditions being recognized, certified and thus eligible for care.   

"That $147 million is going to allow Stony Brook to continue to do peer reviews, medical journals and case studies on new illnesses popping up.”

Phil Alvarez, the program’s member ambassador, whose brother, NYPD Det. Luis Alvarez died of 9/11-related cancer in 2019, said the program averages between 40 and 45 patients every day for monitoring and certification of their illnesses.

“They continue to get sick, they continue to need to be checked,” he said. “We need this funding and we needed it yesterday.”

With David Olson and Lisa Colangelo

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