In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, tens of thousands of first responders and rescue workers descended on Ground Zero to remove the 1.2 million tons of debris that smoldered at the former World Trade Center site.

Hundreds of thousands of downtown workers, residents, students and teachers have also been urged to return to their pre-9/11 lives. They did so while being assured that the air was safe to breathe.

This was not the case, and the consequences of the government’s failure to adequately protect responders were catastrophic. More people died from 9/11-related illnesses than from the attacks themselves. The government then did the right thing in 2011 when it passed the Zadroga Health and Compensation Act, creating both the World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP) and the Compensation Fund. of the victims of September 11 (VCF).

What’s frustrating for so many advocates is how few non-first responders have signed up.

Dozens of respiratory illnesses and 68 cancers have been linked to the toxic fumes that raged at Ground Zero between September 11, 2001 and May 2022.

Anyone who was regularly in the area during this time is eligible to enroll in the program to receive free lifetime health care and VCF rewards.

The good news is that 80% of uniformed first responders who worked at the site signed up for the health program, or nearly 85,000 people. The bad news is that only about 34,000 non-first responders like downtown officers, residents and construction workers, representing about 10% of the eligible civilian population, are part of the program.

That’s a frighteningly low number considering how dangerous Ground Zero’s open-air “burning pit” is. Some of the cancers linked to the site have an average latency period of 20 years, meaning thousands of people are likely to visit their doctors this year and receive the worst news of their lives.

It is our moral and civic duty to inform the public of their rights through the WTCHP, and we can start by enlisting employers and civic associations south of Canal Street in our mission.

We support Assemblyman Nader Sayegh (D-Yonkers), who introduced Bill A9715A, the 9/11 Notification Act, which would require all businesses employing more than 50 people to notify their employees and retirees. eligible from 21 years ago of their rights to health care and compensation.

Many people believe that the WTCHP is only open to emergency responders, just as some employers believe that they could be liable in some way for damages if their current or former employees become ill or register. Neither is true.

In addition to the 300,000 downtown office workers, retail workers, streetcar salespeople, students and teachers are eligible.

We call for a public hearing to explain why it is critical that all businesses that maintained offices and workforces in Lower Manhattan after 9/11 work with the state to publicize the benefits of both programs. Such awareness could provide financial and health care security to those who can barely afford the costs of cancer treatment. Over 21 years later, it’s been long overdue.

Louis J. Coletti is President and CEO of the Building Trades Employers Association (BTEA) of New York City, representing 26 building contractor associations, with more than 1,200 construction contracting companies, general and specialized.

Michael Barasch is a managing partner at Barasch McGarry and an advocate for the 9/11 community.