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U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is campaigning for president. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is campaigning for president.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is campaigning for president.

Jill Terreri Ramos
By Jill Terreri Ramos March 9, 2019

Gillibrand highlights 9/11 cancer deaths

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand says the federal government needs to maintain its commitment to those affected by the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, and is urging her colleagues to support a permanent victim compensation fund.

"The 9/11 death toll is still growing," Gillibrand said at a bill unveiling on Feb. 25. "9/11 responders are still suffering. In the World Trade Center Health Program, 45,000 people are suffering from at least one 9/11-related chronic health condition. Over 10,000 have been certified with a 9/11-related cancer, with more being diagnosed every single day. And almost every day another 9/11 responder or survivor dies from a 9/11-related cancer."   

Gillibrand, now campaigning for president, has pushed for help for Sept. 11 responders and survivors for years. We wondered if her claim that "almost every day another 9/11 responder or survivor dies from a 9/11-related cancer" is true.


More than 90,000 people enrolled in a federal program aimed at helping people suffering from health conditions related to the attacks of Sept. 11.

Cancer diagnoses among Sept. 11 responders and survivors continue to be reported. Responders include emergency first responders, such as police and fire personnel, construction and demolition workers, volunteers, and others who worked at the site after the attacks. Survivors are those who lived and worked in the area, or were present there. The government reports people who have Sept. 11 health conditions live in all 50 states. 

A study published in January from Rutgers University, which operates a clinic to provide care to World Trade Center responders and survivors, found significant increases in head and neck cancers among Sept. 11 responders. Judith Graber, lead author of the study, stated in a news release that the "excess occurrence" was "plausible since first responders inhaled debris clouds containing many known carcinogens."

The federal government administers the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which has paid nearly $5 billion to more than 21,000 claimants suffering from Sept. 11-related injuries, and the World Trade Center Health Program, which monitors and treats Sept. 11-related conditions. The health program is funded through 2090, but the compensation fund continues to receive new claims and is at risk of running out of money if Congress does not act. Gillibrand and some of her colleagues are trying to win support for a permanent compensation fund.

Counting the cases

Gillibrand's office referred us to two people it says have deep knowledge of the responder and survivor community for evidence of her claim, John Feal and Ben Chevat.

Feal founded the Feal Good Foundation, which has a memorial wall on Long Island for responders who have died from a Sept. 11-related illness. Based on his tally, between 2,000 and 2,100 responders have died since 2008 from Sept. 11-related illnesses, including cancer, respiratory problems or suicide. That’s an average of a person every 2.7 days, he said. In the year ending on Sept. 1, 2018, 163 people died, or one every 2.2 days. Since Sept. 1, 2018, 61 responders have died from a Sept. 11-related illness, or one every three days. He has an additional list of 300 people whose families believe died from a Sept. 11-related illness, but whose presence at the disaster site or medical condition before their death has not been confirmed.

Whitney Mitchell Brennan, Gillibrand's spokeswoman, also provided Feal's calculation that 2,100 people have died in 17 years, or approximately one death every three days. 

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Feal suspects many more people who responded to the site have died from illnesses related to their exposure at Ground Zero but have not been counted. His foundation searches obituaries for mentions of Sept. 11, and family members of the deceased reach out to the foundation on their own. But there are likely Sept. 11-related deaths that never come to the foundation’s attention, he said. People dealing with health effects from responding to the site may not realize the connection, and death certificates do not note a deceased person’s connection to Sept. 11.   

Data on deaths are difficult to gather, in part because there is no official list of everyone who was at the site or who lived or worked nearby, said Chevat, executive director of 9/11 Health Watch, which monitors programs created to help people affected by Sept. 11 and advocates on behalf of responders, survivors and their families.    

"I am convinced that there are people that are dying from their conditions nearly every other day," Chevat said.

Chevat said there isn't an official estimate of those who have died from Sept. 11-related illnesses, but he bases his opinion on his knowledge of the Sept. 11 survivor and responder community, as well as his tracking of news clips regarding Sept. 11-related deaths.

The World Trade Center Health Program treats people who are dealing with health effects from Sept. 11, but does not have a comprehensive list of every survivor or responder, and is often not immediately notified when a patient dies, said Christina Spring, spokeswoman for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which directs the World Trade Center Health Program. Data from the program show that 641 people with a Sept. 11-related cancer certification have died since the end of 2012, but those deaths may have been caused for a reason other than their cancer, Spring said. If we start the clock in 2013, through 2018, that means someone with a certified Sept. 11-related cancer died every 3.4 days.  

We also reached out to Dr. Iris Udasin, who studies health effects from the Sept. 11 attacks at Rutgers University. She said since Gillibrand said "almost," the statement is "reasonable," based on her knowledge and experience.   

Our ruling

Gillibrand said "almost every day" someone dies from a Sept. 11-related cancer.

Since there is no official comprehensive record of these deaths, we have to evaluate other evidence in determining the accuracy of her claim. The data available ranges from one death from cancer for survivors and responders every 3.4 days to every 2.7 days for all causes for responders. 

The 2.7 per day figure does not include people who were exposed to harmful conditions because they lived or worked near the disaster area, or responders who died without Feal’s knowledge. Doctors and experts who work with this population said more data is needed to know the frequency of 9/11 cancer-related deaths.

That makes the known deaths at least half as frequent as Gillibrand said, beyond the bounds of "almost," in our judgment.

We rate Gillibrand’s statement Mostly False.  

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"Almost every day another 9/11 survivor or responder dies from a 9/11-related cancer."
in a news conference
Monday, February 25, 2019

Our Sources

Video clip of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand speech during unveiling of the "Never Forget the Heroes" legislation, Twitter, @ABCPolitics, Feb. 25, 2019.

"Gillibrand’s opponent claims she hasn’t passed any bills while in office," PolitiFact New York, May 4, 2018. Accessed March 6, 2019.

Video, "Never forget the heroes" 9/11 health bill unveiling, ABC7NY, YouTube, Feb. 25, 2019. Accessed March 6, 2019.

"World Trade Center Responders at Increased Risk for Head and Neck Cancers, Rutgers Study Finds," Rutgers Today, Jan. 17, 2019. Accessed March 6, 2019.

Telephone, email conversation, Ben Chevat, 9/11 Health Watch, March 1, 2019. 

Telephone conversation, John Feal, Feal Good Foundation, Feb. 28, 2019. 

Telephone, email conversation, Christina Spring, associate director for communication and research to practice, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, March 5, 2019.

Email conversation, Dr. Iris Udasin, medical director, Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute Clinical Center, Rutgers University, March 6, 2019.

Email conversation, Nicole Navas, U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman, March 5, 2019.

Email conversation, Whitney Mitchell Brennan, spokeswoman, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Feb. 28, 2019.

"With Ground Zero Payments Slashed, A Push to Replenish a 9/11 Fund," New York Times, Feb. 28, 2019. Accessed March 6, 2019.

Status report, September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, February 2019. Accessed March 7, 2019.

Program Statistics, World Trade Center Health Program, as of Dec. 31, 2018. Accessed March 7, 2019.

Telephone conversation, Dr. Jacqueline Moline, chairperson, Department of Occupational Medicine, Epidemiology and Prevention, Northwell Health, March 7, 2019.

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