By CBSMiami.com Team

NEW YORK (CBS) – Tens of thousands of first responders served at Ground Zero in the months following the September 11 terror attacks.

Many are battling severe health conditions and have lost their lives because of illnesses related to toxin exposures.

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Former NYPD Detective Barbara Burnette tried to save as many lives as she could on September 11th.

“The air was so thick and dusty that if you saw EMS around they had bottled water, you just had to put it on your face, pour it on your eyes and keep going. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t see or breathe, we just knew we had to help,” she said.

Burnette worked on the pile at Ground Zero for weeks. And like many first responders, her heroic service has cost her her health.

“They said to me, ‘You have lung disease related to 9/11, and there’s no cure.’ I don’t even think I told my family for like three weeks because it didn’t register,” she said.

A once healthy athlete, Burnette is on oxygen and needs a wheelchair. The grandmother of five is also battling lung cancer.

She’s among the 81,704 responders in treatment programs around the country and one of 14,617 cases of 9/11-related cancer, according to the World Trade Center Health Program.

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“The opportunity for those folks to breathe in poisonous materials was there from the very beginning and stayed there as long as that pile stayed on fire and as long as they were moving large amounts of dust,” said Dr. Michael Crane, medical director of the WTC Health Program at Mount Sinai in New York.

WTC Health Program data also shows 27,347 responders suffer from chronic rhinosinusitis, 25,008 with gastroesophageal disease or GERD, and 13,379 with asthma.

“These are chronic conditions. They need chronic, long-term care, and we’re just blessed to have the expertise,” Dr. Crane said.

According to Dr. Crane, post-traumatic stress and other mental issues exacerbate those physical conditions.

Burnette has testified before Congress, advocating for other first responders.

She said, “Day to day it’s very hard. I can’t do any of the things I used to do.”

Burnette said she shares her story to remind Americans that people are sick from the sacrifices they made, and they need help.

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Nearly 30,000 survivors of 9/11 who lived and worked in lower Manhattan are also being monitored and treated for health problems.

CBSMiami.com Team