MAC: Mines and Communities

9/11 Aftermath: Health Fears For Victims Of Ground Zero's Deadly Dust Wtc Rescue Workers

Published by MAC on 2006-02-10
Source: The Guardian

9/11 aftermath: Health fears for victims of Ground Zero's deadly dust World Trade Centre rescue workers demand action over effects of toxic cloud

by Robin Shulman in New York, The Guadian

10th February 2006

In the days after September 11 2001, Tom Mazzola dug through the heap of burning detritus that was the World Trade Centre, looking for survivors. Finding safety gear seemed less important, and he did not consider the potential threat from the mixture of asbestos, lead, mercury, pulverised concrete, powdered glass and compounds from burning jet fuel.

But now Mr Mazzola, a volunteer emergency worker, is plagued by shortness of breath, headaches, joint pain, and the chronic "World Trade Centre cough". Last week he visited a clinic in upper Manhattan that screens 9/11 workers for health problems - motivated in part by the knowledge that some of those who breathed the hot black gravelly air alongside him have since died.

Timothy Keller, an emergency medical technician, died in June of heart disease complicated by bronchitis and emphysema. Another emergency worker, Felix Hernandez, died in October of respiratory ailments. And at the beginning of January a police detective, James Zadroga, died of what his family reported as black lung disease, with high levels of mercury in his blood and powdered glass in his body.

Their deaths and the illnesses of thousands of others suggest a broader health problem, according to medical and environmental experts. New York legislators have called on the federal government to appoint a health tsar to oversee testing and treatment.Grave concern

"Our grave concern right now is what we're seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg," said Donald Faeth, an emergency medical technician and a union representative for other sick workers. "There are people who died that day and didn't realise they died that day."

At the Mount Sinai Medical Centre in upper Manhattan, doctors are monitoring the health of about 16,000 workers exposed to the dust and debris from the towers. About half have problems ranging from persistent respiratory disease to sinus problems to stomach ailments, and many have multiple problems, according to Jacqueline Moline, an investigator in the programme.

"It's hard to know what to expect," Dr Moline said, adding that diseases could take years to develop. Her concerns start with cancer, but extend to potential effects on the heart and a variety of lung and respiratory problems. She advises screening exposed workers every 18 months for at least 20 years, but her programme is only funded until 2009.

She is also concerned that many of her sick patients have been denied compensation. Often workers cannot prove they were at Ground Zero or that their ailments are a direct result of exposure to contaminants there.

If health problems cause them to stop working they lose their salaries and health insurance, and some can no longer afford medication and treatment.

In the days that followed September 11, many of the estimated 50,000 workers at the site went without masks or wore flimsy ones, and used little other protective gear. A further 50,000 residents of lower Manhattan, along with 400,000 people working within a mile of the site, were also unprotected from billowing toxins rising from the rubble.

The administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency at the time, Christie Whitman, assured New Yorkers their air was "safe to breathe". Several groups have since filed class action lawsuits against her and her agency, and last week a federal judge called her statements "conscience-shocking".

Even the EPA's own inspector general has criticised the agency's handling of the crisis. A 2003 report found that on the basis of early tests for asbestos, which had been reassuring, the EPA made misleading pronouncements about air quality. And the White House, the report said, removed cautionary language from the agency's press releases.

A further study by the US general accounting office in 2004 found that the federal government had taken no comprehensive actions to study the health effects of 9/11 pollution and "the full health impact of the attack is unknown".

David Worby, who has filed a lawsuit in Manhattan federal court on behalf of 6,000 workers, says he has identified 23 deaths among workers exposed to 9/11 contaminants. No official statistics exist to confirm his claims.

But last month two New York senators and more than a dozen members of Congress signed a letter calling the deaths of at least three workers "an ominous sign" and demanding a plan for long-term monitoring and care.Ailing workers

A group of ailing emergency workers, Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes, held its first conference last month. One of those who attended was Bill Dahl, a former paramedic. "I remember the wind kicking up that night," he said in a telephone interview punctuated by his coughing. "It was like a little hurricane. Your eyes and your nose and your mouth would get caked with debris. Whenever you found water, you tried to wash your eyes out and rinse your mouth out. At one point the officer I was with had to be ordered home because his eyes started to bleed."

In the days that followed he was assigned to a hazardous materials unit. He said he had worked 14 - to 16-hour days to decontaminate other workers at the site, but he himself was not issued with an air-purifying respirator.

A week after September 11 Mr Dahl, who had prided himself on jogging eight miles a day, began to cough up grey mucus. He would often wake in the night wheezing, unable to breathe. In January 2002 he had his first full-blown asthma attack. He has since developed an extremely rare form of cancer, synovial sarcoma, in his throat.

He said the workers' compensation board had so far denied him benefits, suggesting his pulmonary problems could result from his cancer, or from a recent car accident, not necessarily from exposure to the World Trade Centre ruins. He plans to submit that his rare cancer itself resulted from 9/11.

These days he cannot walk or talk much without wheezing. And he can't help but wonder if the next death will be his own.

Lethal legacy:

The twin towers contained thousands of computers, copy machines and fluorescent lights which released tiny particles of lead and mercury.

464,500 sq metres of painted surfaces;
560,000 sq metres of masonry;
650,000 sq metres of flooring;
56,000 sq metres of windows
came down as dust

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