Tuesday, September 14, 2004

World Trade Center Workers: Still Suffering Three Years Later

As those of you who read Confined Space or live in the New York area know, those killed on 9/11 were not the only victims of the events of that day. Hundreds of firefighters and rescue workers were also affected by exposure to deadly toxins and not provided with adequate safety equipment or not urged to use it.

As the third anniversary of 9/11 has come and gone, there have been a number of studies released and other stories that raise serious questions about the handling of health and safety concerns for rescue and clean-up workers during mass catastrophes like 9/11. These were our nation’s heros during the aftermath of that tragic event, but many of them are paying a serious and possibly permanent price with chronic physical and psychological disabilities. How can we protect people during future events? What is the government’s role in making sure that workers are protected in the first hours, then days, then weeks of an event?

OSHA has essentially decided that its emergency response standards only apply when there is no emergency. EPA and the White House judged that it was politically expedient to fudge the truth about what was and was not known just at the time when the truth was most needed.

There were no deaths or serious injuries during the rescue and cleanup of the World Trade Center sites or the Pentagon. To that extent, the cleanup was a success. Yet cleanup and rescue workers continue to suffer and the longer-term effects are still unknown, as are solutions to the public policy questions raised by tragedy.

Summarized below are some of the most recent articles and studies about lingering effects of 9/11. For the most comprehensive accounting, go to the NYCOSH Website:
  • More than 800 rescue and cleanup workers from Ground Zero have filed the largest post-9/11 class-action lawsuit, contending they were exposed to deadly toxins and not provided with adequate safety equipment.

    The lawsuit claims Silverstein Properties, which leased the World Trade Center, and four construction companies hired to oversee the removal of the 1.5 million tons of debris "should have known that safety precautions were needed to protect the rescue workers and cleanup workers ... and anyone else exposed to the caustic dust from the airborne contamination, toxins and other substances."

  • The U.S. Government Accountability Office sent a the government has yet to make a comprehensive effort to study the effects on their health.

    And it reveals that there is no systematic effort to adequately monitor the well-being of those affected, give them physical examinations or provide treatment. In fact, In fact, 9/11 pollution 'could cause more deaths than attack itself

  • Meanwhile, A study released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta found high levels of respiratory ailments, such as asthma, sinusitis, persistent coughs and impaired breathing, among the workers who labored to clean up the World Trade Center site. The study, which examined 1,139 workers out of up to 40,000 who toiled at the site, found that the problems persisted for an average of eight months after workers finished their jobs there.

    But many still suffer from respiratory problems three years after the disaster, despite aggressive treatment. Researchers believe that the ailments come from repeated inhalation of smoke, asbestos, pulverized concrete and fine glass particles at the site."I would say that we've all been shocked by how many of our patients are quite ill and staying quite ill," said Dr. Robin Herbert of New York's Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, which took part in the study.

    More on the CDC study here.

  • Another CDC study found that more than half of the screened workers had psychological symptoms – chiefly post traumatic stress disorder -- as a result of helping in New York.

  • Even California firefighters who came to NY to help are being studied for long term health effects: Sixty-seven members of Task Force 3 worked 20-hour days digging through what was dubbed "The Pile" at ground zero. When they returned from their 13-day stay, 70 percent of them were ill, Schapelhouman said. There

  • Firefighters paid the price for the heroic work they did but a good number of them didn't wear any respiratory protection.
    In the first few days of the recovery effort, no one would have expected them to. The job of trying to save any trapped people took precedence. But Jack Ginty, a New York firefighter who is on the executive board of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said workers would have taken more precautions had they known the dangers. "People were asking, 'Is this safe?' . . . and we had the EPA saying, 'Oh, yeah, it's fine," he said. "They flat-out lied to us."A report by the inspector general of the EPA found that the agency received pressure from the White House's Council on Environmental Quality to downplay dangers of the air around the Trade Center. The report said other factors came into play, including a desire to reopen Wall Street. Had firefighters known the dangers in the air, Ginty said, crews may have operated differently. Maybe rotating in six-hour shifts rather than 12-hour shifts. Maybe working days or weeks at a time, rather than a month straight.