Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

9/11 Blunders Left Workers, Residents Literally in the Dust
By Katherine Stapp, Inter Press, April 7, 2004

Even as the White House scrambles to defend its handling of the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001, the poisonous gas and dust unleashed by the disaster continue to settle in the lungs of thousands of recovery workers and New York City residents.

They are particularly exasperated with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), because it quickly reassured people that the air around the World Trade Centre site in New York's Manhattan was safe to breathe, when in fact EPA scientists lacked sufficient data to draw this conclusion.

An internal investigation later found that the White House Council on Environmental Quality "convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones" in its press releases.

In the months following the collapse of the centre, the EPA helped clean some 4,000 apartments in the area through a voluntary programme. However, tens of thousands of other sites, including offices and schools, have never been officially checked for toxins like asbestos, mercury and lead.

"The question remains that thousands of homes could still be contaminated," said Dr. Paul Lioy, one of the lead authors of a study released in February by the National Institutes of Health on the environmental and health impacts of the 9/11 attacks. "It's a very complex, unprecedented situation."

With pressure building to assuage public fears, an expert panel of scientists, doctors and one resident of Lower Manhattan is now in the midst of re-evaluating the agency's actions.

"Nobody knows what people were exposed to," said Joel Shufro, the executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), a coalition of labour unions and workplace safety experts.

"The testing just hasn't been done. It's our assessment that the EPA and Health Department never considered dust to be a public health hazard," he said in an interview.

"The programmes they did create to deal with it were purely for political cover. From day one, the primary concern was to reopen Wall Street."

According to the latest figures from Mount Sinai Hospital's occupational health clinic, which has screened more than 9,000 rescue and recovery workers, about one-half still suffer from respiratory problems and other injuries. More than 40 percent have post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Those of us who responded to Ground Zero are in crisis," Jimmy Willis, a member of the Transport Workers Union, recently testified before a congressional subcommittee on national security.

"Transit workers toiled for weeks at Ground Zero without respirators. Unfortunately, New York City Transit, the Department of Health and New York State deferred site air quality and safety to the EPA," he said. "Of the 4,000 transit workers who responded to Ground Zero, as many as half of us are now seriously ill."

Many also lack health insurance, and must rely on a handful of special programmes to get treatment. The situation is especially bleak for the undocumented day labourers who cleared dust from the apartments and office buildings surrounding the World Trade Centre, without the benefit of protective equipment.

A mobile clinic set up at Ground Zero in January and February 2002 saw 416 labourers, most of them from Colombia and Ecuador, while by last October the Latin American Worker's Project had documented more than 600 day labourers who helped in the clean-up.

Advocacy groups, like NYCOSH and the Puerto Rican Legal Defence and Education Fund, are helping some of them to apply for workers compensation, a state-run programme that provides medical treatment and cash benefits for workers injured on the job -- regardless of their legal status.

But despite government promises that Sep. 11 cases would be expedited, advocates say insurance companies are conducting business as usual, meaning the cases will likely take years to resolve.

"The main problem is that insurance companies have learned how to work the system so that it takes so long, workers get discouraged and give up," said NYCOSH's Beverly Tillery, who is coordinating some of the World Trade Centre cases.

"We've seen that happening, where the energy it takes to get through the process just isn't worth it for some people."

"Also, the response letters that the Workers' Compensation Board sent out are all in English, and the one worker advocate we talked to didn't speak Spanish." In March, a group of recovery workers and downtown residents sued the EPA to demand further testing and cleanup, as well as the creation of a fund to pay for medical monitoring of affected individuals.

Kelly Colangelo, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, lived just one and a half blocks from the World Trade Centre the day the towers collapsed. She says that personal testing later found relatively high levels of fibreglass, asbestos and other toxins in her home, and she worries she is at increased risk for deadly illnesses like asbestosis and mesothelioma.

"Thick grey dust, mixed with burnt papers, pervaded the apartment through the open windows," she told IPS. "I contracted a rash on my face, and began suffering from severe headaches, sinus problems, and a deep cough after I was allowed to enter my building on Sep.12. The air in my apartment was cloudy with suspended dust, and I had trouble breathing."

Last week, two members of Congress proposed expanding federal health insurance to downtown residents and all workers to cover their physical and psychological treatment, as well as the cost of prescription drugs. The bill would increase the number of people now being monitored from 12,000 to 40,000.

Unions and worker advocates applauded the proposal, but noted that other, larger issues must also be addressed.

"Workers -- for utilities, sanitation, transportation -- who were not considered "first responders" really were and need training" (in the event of another incident like 9/11) Shufro said.

"We also need to sort out the issue of who's in charge. OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration) deferred to local authorities on the pile. For nine months, OSHA standards were not enforced, and that's unacceptable."

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