Anthony Falsetta, of West Islip, can still recall the cloud of toxic dust engulfing much of lower Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, just moments after the fall of the south tower.
Falsetta, then a municipal bond salesman who had raced toward Ground Zero to offer help after the collapse of the north tower, would walk 40 minutes toward Battery Park covered head to toe in soot and debris before finding something resembling fresh air.
Years later, Falsetta would see his health deteriorate. He was diagnosed with sleep apnea and gastroesophageal reflux disease — both 9/11-recognized illnesses for which he receives treatment through the World Trade Center Health Program — and later neuropathy, a painful nerve condition that causes weakness and numbness in the hands and feet.
“Your feet feels like they're burning or on fire throughout the day, every day, no matter what I'm doing,” said Falsetta, 57, who can no longer work because of his condition. “I can be driving in the car. I can be walking in a supermarket. You feel like you just want to rip your shoes and socks off. It hurts that much.”
While multiple medical studies have found a link between exposure to the toxic debris at Ground Zero and autoimmune diseases such as neuropathy, those conditions are not yet covered by the WTC program, which provides monitoring and treatment for dozens of cancers, respiratory and digestive conditions, acute traumatic injuries and mental health conditions.
But that could soon change as members of the medical community have submitted a petition to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which runs the WTC Health Program, to add neuropathy to the list of covered conditions. A separate petition to add rheumatoid arthritis, another autoimmune condition, is also in the works, officials said.
Dr. Marc Wilkenfeld, chief of environmental occupational medicine at NYU Langone-Long Island Hospital in Mineola, has conducted multiple studies showing that neuropathy is directly linked to World Trade Center dust.
“I've seen dozens of patients with neuropathy,” Wilkenfeld said. “So we're just waiting [for NIOSH approval] … It's a real pity to see my patients suffer this way. All they want is to have their treatments covered and to have the appropriate benefits.”
The links between 9/11 and other autoimmune conditions, including lupus and multiple sclerosis, are also being studied, officials said.
NIOSH, which has not yet publicly acknowledged a link between Sept. 11 and autoimmune diseases, did not respond to a request for comment.
Michael Barasch, managing partner at the law firm Barasch & McGarry, which represents more than 35,000 members of the 9/11 community, said he has met with dozens of individuals, including many from Long Island, who were exposed to the toxic dust in lower Manhattan and who have since developed serious autoimmune diseases.
“So many people who I represent with other respiratory illnesses or cancers tell me, 'I just got diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, but the health program won't certify it,' ” Barasch said on Thursday, the one-year anniversary of the program adding uterine and endometrial cancers to the list of covered conditions eligible for free health care and compensation awards. “And it would be nice for these people to get their medical coverage for these ailments.”