Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article|
Ground Zero The Most
Dangerous Workplace: Part One of a Three-Part Series
By Michelle Chen, The NewStandard.com, January 24, 2005
After EPA failed to warn the estimated 40,000 rescue and recovery workers who responded to
the WTC tragedy on or after 9/11, thousands have fallen ill and hundreds encounter
resistance to health care and compensation claims.
New York City , Jan 24 - More than three years have passed since the World Trade Center
collapsed on September 11, 2001 -- but the dust has not yet settled. Thousands who worked
or lived in the disaster area have reported health problems related to the attack, the
potential long-term effects of the environmental contaminants from Ground Zero are
unknown, and there is also evidence that contamination may still be lingering in the
Downtown Manhattan has been slowly rebuilding itself since the disaster, but many still
wonder how they can recover amid questions about the consequences of the contamination and
whether the government has failed to confront the full impact of the event.
Since September 11, scientific investigations, media reports and advocacy campaigns have
steadily yielded evidence that government-sponsored misinformation about environmental
hazards fueled the chaos surrounding the collapse of the Twin Towers. Advocates argue that
the government is still refusing to take responsibility for the public health dangers at
Ground Zero. Now, countless disaster response workers suffer debilitating health problems
and face legal and political barriers in seeking benefits through the public health
From the day of the collapse on, emergency responders, recovery workers and volunteers
swarmed the smoldering disaster site. A total of 40,000 responders worked for months,
digging through rubble and moving equipment to stabilize the 16-acre expanse of wreckage.
For Jimmy Willis, a former subway conductor and Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100
representative, the collapse commenced a personal and physical struggle that has dogged
him for over three years. On September 12, he rushed to the site to volunteer alongside
thousands of fellow union members, who had been sent to the site by the city government.
For about ten days, Willis and other transit workers helped clear out a towering six-story
mass of rubble known as "the Pile," carving a path "five feet at a
time" through a morass of concrete and bodies, with little or no respiratory
Transit workers provided much of the manual labor at Ground Zero -- up to 60 percent of
the entire workforce at one point, according to a study by the Congressionally-created
Mineta Transportation Institute.
Accounts of Ground Zero workers and volunteers as well as environmentalistsn suggest that
concerns about public health and safety at the site were eclipsed by the disaster's
enormity. Watchdog groups like the Sierra Club, a national environmentalist organization,
contend that in the initial emergency response, the Environmental Protection Agency and
local authorities showed little concern for respiratory safety and that no government
agency stepped forward to implement a coordinated safety program.
Health studies indicate that many if not most of the thousands laboring at Ground Zero
received neither proper respiratory masks nor warnings about airborne hazards. A survey of
exposed iron workers by New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center revealed that in the first
week, 74 percent had only disposable dust masks or no protection at all. A survey by New
York City Fire Department of 319 firefighters showed that on the day of the disaster,
nearly 80 percent had similarly inadequate protection.
While more firefighters obtained proper respiratory gear over the next two weeks, about
half said they wore it only rarely. According to environmental scientist Paul Lioy's
report on the government's emergency response, Ground Zero workers -- lacking proper
training and accurate official safety information -- had little incentive to wear the
"uncomfortable and unmanageable" respiratory gear.
In national emergencies such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, federal law delegates the
responsibility to implement worker health and safety regulations to the Occupational
Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA's first major response came on November 20,
when it announced the WTC Emergency Project Partnership Agreement a coalition of city
agencies, construction trade organizations, and private contractors, along with a 250-word
plan for "a cooperative effort" to promote worker safety.
The initiative, say critics, failed to establish clear safety guidelines and was
implemented only after workers had toiled virtually unprotected for weeks at what OSHA
Administrator John Henshaw, in the partnership's press statement, called "potentially
the most dangerous workplace in the United States."
Workers and volunteers quickly caught wind of a growing environmental disaster as Ground
Zero responders and others in the area began to exhibit a set of concurrent, debilitating
symptoms -- severe coughing, gastrointestinal reflux and sinus irritation -- that came to
be known as "World Trade Center Cough."
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Fire Department of New York reported that
within 48 hours of the collapse, 90 percent of firefighters experienced serious coughing.
In early October, 73 percent of surveyed firefighters reported new or worsened respiratory
problems, and within six months, the new ailment had forced 332 firefighters to take sick
The main source of these symptoms, according to scientific analyses of Ground Zero dust,
was a catastrophic plume of smoke that draped lower Manhattan and neighboring Brooklyn
with hazardous pollution. The force of the collapse decimated an estimated 1.2 million
tons of concrete, office equipment and other materials, including hundreds of tons of
asbestos. Many contaminants that could cause both short-term and chronic damage or even
cancer -- including glass particles, lead and toxic chemicals -- were scattered in the
air. Burning debris at Ground Zero also continued to contaminate the air through December.
Activists argue that while the public health impact of the contamination has been observed
and documented for over three years, government agencies have done little to investigate
the long-term effects, and even less to provide public treatment resources.
Ongoing health studies show that for thousands, the effects of Ground Zero have lasted
beyond the initial exposure. The World Trade Center Worker & Volunteer Medical
Screening Program, administered by New York City's Mount Sinai Medical Center, has
examined about 12,000 rescue workers and volunteers who served at Ground Zero. A September
2004 preliminary analysis of 1,183 subjects, with a median length of exposure of 966
hours, revealed that 74 percent reported upper respiratory problems, and two thirds of
these reported "persistent" symptoms lasting to the month before the screening.
Over half of the sample also reported psychological disturbance, including signs of Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A health monitoring and treatment program administered by the Fire Department reported
that within eleven months of the collapse, the number of firefighters on leave for
respiratory illnesses reached 1,876 -- five times the number in the preceding eleven
months, while the number of "stress-related incidents" increased by over 1,200
in the same timeframe. Since 2002, reports the department, a total of 378 firefighters
have retired explicitly due to respiratory problems, more than twice the total for 1999 to
2001. Overall retirements after the attacks more than doubled to 1,272.
Less is known about the informal clean-up workers exposed to Ground Zero, many of them
immigrants haphazardly hired by landlords to clean apartment and office buildings in the
area. Researchers with the City University of New York's World Trade Center Day Laborer
Medical Monitoring Project reported that a large portion of over 400 private clean-up
workers screened "did not speak English, did not have health insurance, and did not
have training in working with hazardous materials." The vast majority, who worked for
up to twelve weeks without proper protection, reported symptoms like breathing problems,
dizziness and fatigue, which often persisted after exposure ended.
Stories of individual workers color in the ashen outlines of an obscured epidemic.
David Rapp, a construction worker who worked at Ground Zero for five months, told members
of Congress in a 2003 hearing on the September 11-related health effects "I rely on
oxygen to sleep at night
I've had a sore throat for fifteen months, when I cough I
can feel the outlines of my lungs."
In an interview with The NewStandard, Michael Golding, a Brooklyn-based firefighter, said
that in his firehouse, about ten percent of the staff has had to leave the job due to
post-9/11 respiratory troubles. He said his house has earned the nickname, "The
Cancer House" -- not only because of the ailing inhabitants, but because their fire
truck harbored Ground Zero contaminants for months after returning from the disaster site.
A city-contracted company had supposedly decontaminated the trucks, but residual dust
caking the interior made Golding suspicious. Independent tests done on the vehicle, he
said, revealed DNA, shards of glass and asbestos.
Aided by the nonprofit New York Environmental Law & Justice Project, Golding
eventually successfully petitioned the Fire Department for a recleaning, and in September
2002, the department contracted a new company to clean 800 emergency response vehicles
across the city in accordance with professional protocols. Although the firehouses that
contained the contaminated vehicles were not systematically cleaned, leaving open another
potential contamination source, the department has stated that future clean-up requests
will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
While his truck finally has a clean bill of health one year after rushing to Ground Zero,
Golding has not quite gotten back his peace of mind. His primary concern remains what he
and his coworkers might already have breathed into their lungs. "I don't know what's
going to happen to me five years from now," he said.
Perhaps more alarming than the apparent health effects of working at Ground Zero is the
dearth of information on just how many workers were affected. TWU Director of Occupational
Health Frank Goldsmith observed that "overall, workers tend not to complain
about physical, and especially the mental health conditions from any event like [the
September 11 attacks]," possibly because they fear it might jeopardize their jobs.
Joel Kupferman, executive director of the New York Environmental Law & Justice
Project, said that the city should actually have much more data than is currently
available to the public, because physicians are required to report to the State
Commissioner of Health every case of occupational lung disease they diagnose. Kupferman
believes that, if the city's public health system complied with these regulations, health
officials and researchers would immediately have been able to launch a citywide health
monitoring program. "If they followed the law," he argued, "they'd know
every sick worker that was there."
The Battle for Compensation
Labor unions began bracing themselves for a potential worker health crisis soon after the
collapse. Jimmy Willis took on the role of assistant to TWU's president to coordinate
health initiatives for exposed transit workers -- but the union was unprepared for the
obstacles that lay ahead.
Willis's task has been doubly complicated because he is experiencing first-hand the same
problems other union members face. After working at Ground Zero himself, Willis began
suffering from persistent breathing and gastric problems that "just kept getting
worse," eventually forcing him to step down from his leadership duties in the union.
He recently relocated to Nevada in hopes that the milder climate would improve his
Willis controls his symptoms with asthma medications covered by the city's insurance plan
for transit workers, and having spent most of 2004 out of work on long-term sick leave, he
may soon be unemployed. "Right now," he said, "I'm out of sick time, I'm
out of vacation time, and I'm
in the position where I'm not getting paid
He now hopes to retire on a disability pension. But negotiating the city's benefits
system, even for those commended as heroes for their work at Ground Zero, is an
exhausting, often fruitless battle. According to labor representatives, many workers have
chosen to tolerate sickness rather than deal with the bureaucracy.
For the union members Willis represents, workers' compensation applications have been a
painful extension of the September 11 nightmare. The MTA administers its own Worker's
Compensation fund and therefore, according to union advocates, has a vested interest in
contesting each claim.
Frank Goldsmith said that in cases of less "obvious" occupational illnesses,
such as respiratory or gastric problems that Ground Zero workers commonly experience, the
MTA will "challenge and fight against anything which is occupational health- or
Dominick Tuminaro, an attorney whose firm has represented many TWU members in claims
proceedings, said that large, self-insured agencies like the Metropolitan Transit
Authority "have lots of protocols in place that essentially do not readily provide
these benefits." Of ten WTC-related workers' compensation cases his firm helped
litigate, he said, the MTA formally contested five and initially refused to pay in the
other five cases, citing bureaucratic reasons. Benefits were eventually granted in all ten
cases, however, which, to Tuminaro, proves that the employer was largely to blame for
holding up payments the workers deserved.
These post-9/11 cases, noted Tuminaro, are not an aberration but, unfortunately,
"business as usual." The agency has a tradition of systematically challenging as
many claims as possible, he asserted, and "the fact that there is a consequence in
the real lives of the workers is not something that's terribly important to them."
Communications Workers of America, representing communications workers who participated in
the emergency response, have accused Verizon of similarly mishandling workers'
compensation claims. Drawing on data provided by attorneys, Micki Siegel de Hernandez, the
union's director of occupational health, told TNS, "It's our belief that many if not
most of the workers' compensation claims filed for respiratory and/or stress related
disorders after 9/11 have been controverted," or disputed by the employer.
Verizon has withheld all information regarding post-9/11 workers' compensation claims as
well as the results of an internal voluntary medical screening program for 981 employees.
In a statement emailed to TNS, the company claimed that "employees could discuss with
their personal physicians" the screening results, but that data was kept confidential
to protect workers' privacy. The union, which has demanded special compensation procedures
for post-9/11 health problems, counters that this practice makes it extremely difficult to
advocate on behalf of members.
The New York State Workers' Compensation Board reports that individuals have filed a total
of 8,148 injury and exposure claims related to September 11, -- 2,398 of which have been
controverted. According to spokesperson Jon Sullivan, the statistics for these cases do
not diverge substantially from overall patterns, except in the "sheer magnitude"
of the number of claims. Ultimately, about 90 percent of Ground Zero-related claims have
been "resolved," but no data is available on how many actually resulted in
payments to workers.
Unless a negotiated labor contract states otherwise, under state law, a city worker can be
fired after one year on sick leave. If a claim is held up long enough, a worker could be
terminated without receiving compensation for lost wages or treatment.
Union representatives complain that instead of filing for workers' compensation, members
are choosing to fall back on negotiated insurance benefits, which could drive up the cost
of premiums and cut into wages. Public health expert J. Paul Leigh of the University of
California -- Davis wrote in a recent analysis that a nationwide trend of workers
accessing regular benefits instead of workers' compensation has resulted in up to $23
billion in additional medical expenses borne by "individual workers, their families,
private medical insurance, and taxpayers."
Sullivan noted that legally, occupational illness is the exclusive domain of workers'
compensation. "It wouldn't be unusual," he noted, "for an insurance company
outside of the scope of workers' compensation to say, 'No, this is a workers' compensation
claim'" and deny the worker any private benefits.
Disability pensions, administered through the New York City Employee's Retirement System
(NYCERS), have also been a quagmire for public employees suffering Ground Zero-related
illnesses. City employees like transportation workers and emergency medical technicians
are not covered under the more comprehensive pension plans of firefighters and police.
Labor advocates say even people certified disabled by the federal government are
frequently turned down for NYCERS pensions, trapped in a limbo of being both unable to
work and unable to stop working.
Getting approved for a disability pension, Willis observed, is "virtually impossible
in a situation like this, simply because I think they're afraid of a flood of
Israel Miranda, health and safety coordinator for the Uniformed EMTs and Paramedics of
Local 2507, agreed, saying that the city is "worried about Pandora's Box -- that if
they had to pay out everybody who has some sort of injury
then they're going to be
According to official NYCERS records, from September 11, 2001 to June 2004, 42 disability
pension applications "related to September 11th" had been filed. About 69
percent of these were approved, reports the agency, compared to 61 percent of ordinary
But EMT union advocates question the NYCERS statistics, especially the reported 90 percent
approval rate for EMTs with Ground Zero disabilities. Miranda has observed that the
pension board has routinely and adamantly challenged claims of Ground Zero-related
injuries, even when medical evidence directly links the condition to the disaster site.
The union's own records of 170 pension applications filed between 1999 and 2003 indicate
the Board approved only 47 percent; an additional eight percent of applicants ultimately
received pensions after undergoing a formal appeal process.
To explain why many workers opt not to pursue government entitlements, Willis laid out
what he believes is an all-too-common scenario "Now you're sick, you have no money
coming in, and if it's a long-term illness, you're facing termination. So, what do you do?
Do you decide to risk all that
or do you suck it up and go to work sick?"
In 2003, the state legislature passed a bill for a post-9/11 disability pension providing
three-quarters salary for any injured Ground Zero worker. Governor George Pataki, backed
by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, vetoed the bill, alleging that the law's vague
language created too many loopholes. A new version was reintroduced in 2004, but the
Mayor's office has reiterated its opposition to the plan. "It's much too broad,"
said spokesperson Jordan Barowitz, "and would cost the city a fortune."
But unions are nevertheless demanding federal and local policies to ensure that Ground
Zero workers do not continue to suffer for their contributions. As Miranda put it,
"Anybody who serves the citizens of New York and gives their all
taken care of."
Michelle Chen writes, works and plays in New York City. Involved with independent media
for the past nine years, she has written for the South China Morning Post, Clamor,
INTHEFRAY.COM and her own zine, cain.
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