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Don't Make Our Finest Fight City Hall for Their Lives

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On September 11, 2001, police officer Alonzo Harris rushed into the World Trade Center, without second thought, doing his job, protecting his fellow New Yorkers. He survived the collapse of the South Tower, diving under a parked car as dust fell and the ugly thick plume of smoke rose. Officer Harris saved lives, but now his own life is at stake.

He is far from alone. At least 12,000 police officers toiled for months amid the rubble at the toxic World Trade Center site.

Officer Harris had the foresight to preserve his uniform from that terrible day, keep it in a plastic bag. Last year, after he was diagnosed with lung disease, he sent it to a lab. As a result, today we know with certainty that the dust and grit that covered his uniform was deadly -- severely carcinogenic.

According to the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the union that represents New York City's finest, hundreds of police officers have been diagnosed with 9/11-related cancers. The average age of those diagnosed is 44. And hundreds more officers probably will be diagnosed in the coming years.

You would think that the City would be doing everything possible to protect the health of police officers like Alonzo Harris, after all they have done for us. But you would be wrong.

A study recently conducted by the Fire Department found elevated cancer rates among firefighters working at Ground Zero. Similar data from the Police Department is an essential piece of the growing body of evidence linking cancer rates to exposure at the Ground Zero site. This is far from academic -- this research will significantly affect our ability to identify and better treat health problems incurred by first responders in the line of duty.

The City has been recalcitrant. The Bloomberg administration has refused to commit to a firm date when it will release a thorough study of cancer rates among police officers who worked at Ground Zero following the September 11th attacks. Even the mayor's recent pledge to share the names of officers fell short of what researchers urgently need.

The federal James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act does not currently cover cancer and other rare diseases that may be caused by exposure to 9/11 dust and smoke. Even though a CDC advisory committee voted on Thursday to recommend including cancer under the Zadroga Act, it still needs to determine which types of cancer to include and the administrator of the WTC Health Program must agree. That's no easy lift -- and the City isn't making it any easier by holding back critical medical data on thousands of police officers who served at Ground Zero.

State Senator Diane Savino and State Assemblymember Micah Kellner have introduced legislation to force the Bloomberg administration's hand. Their bill would require the City to provide police medical records to researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital that are tracking increased occurrences of cancer and non-cancerous rare diseases among 9/11 first responders. After so many months of foot-dragging, we cannot take it on faith that the mayor will turn over this critical data before the federal government's March 2nd deadline. We must force the City's hand up by keeping up pressure here and up in Albany if we are going to get justice for our Finest and Bravest.

Our city owes a tremendous debt to the thousands of men and women who aided rescue and recovery operations near the World Trade Center. It is our moral responsibility as a city to repay their sacrifice by providing the best possible medical treatment to anyone who sustained injuries or health problems while working at the site.

NYPD officers displayed their trademark remarkable heroism and self-sacrifice on behalf of our city during and after the September 11th attacks. These men and women are fighting for their lives. They shouldn't have to fight their own City too. A little more than ten years later, we must continue to renew our commitment to men and women like Alonzo Harris.

This piece was originally published in the Staten Island Advance.