Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Ground Zero The Most Dangerous Workplace: Part One of a Three-Part Series
By Michelle Chen, The, 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 city's environment.

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 system.

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 protection.

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."

Airborne Poison

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 leave.

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 condition.

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 anymore."

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 mental health-related."

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 applicants."

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 paying forever."

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 applications.

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 … should be 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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