With just a few days remaining until a key deadline, more than 32,000 people have applied to the federal compensation fund for people with illnesses that might be related to toxic fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks, program officials said.
Congress has authorized paying as much as $2.78 billion to people exposed to the tons of thick dust that fell on Manhattan when the World Trade Center collapsed.
The first deadline to apply for a payment comes Thursday, and as that date has approached, the number of applicants has soared. As recently as late June, only 19,733 people had applied. More than 6,000 registrations have been completed just since Sept. 15.
Applications have come in the greatest numbers from firefighters, police officers and construction workers who spent months on the smoking debris pile. A smaller number of registrants are people who lived or worked many blocks away and are concerned about the heaps of ash that fell on the streets or blew through building ventilation systems.
It is unclear how many of those people are actually ill, or who among them might qualify for compensation.
The flood of applications has long been expected. The Congressional Budget Office initially projected that as many 50,000 people would seek compensation. Still, there have been concerns since the program's start that relatively loose eligibility requirements could result in the sizeable fund being stretched thin by the number of enrollees.
Those concerns have multiplied since federal officials began adding many common types of cancer to the list of illnesses that could qualify a person for a payment.
This year, the director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health added prostate cancer as a covered condition. That is an illness that affects 1 in 7 American men during their lifetime, meaning it is bound to hit huge numbers of people exposed to World Trade Center dust even if there is no actual connection between the ash and the disease.
John Feal, a former World Trade Center demolition worker and leading advocate for sick responders, said he thought maybe as many as a third of people registering for the fund are actually healthy and are registering as a precaution because they worry they might get sick later.
"I think there is enough money, and if there isn't enough money, we go back to Congress and ask for more money," he said.
He said his more immediate concern is that so few people have completed the claims process and received a payment. As of Sept. 15, fund administrators had rendered only 78 compensation decisions.
Birnbaum said the fund's staff was hard at work reviewing claims, which have been slowed partially by the need to verify that applicants were actually exposed to the trade center dust and suffering from covered illnesses.
The Oct. 3 deadline applies to anyone who was ill with a condition covered by the fund when it began operating in 2011. That group includes people with several types of respiratory and digestive system ailments.
People with several types of cancer will have an additional year to apply because federal officials didn't expand the program to include those diseases until more recently. People who were healthy in 2011, but have since fallen ill, will also get an additional two years from the date of their diagnosis. The fund closes entirely in 2016.