Sat, Feb 11, 2006 - Page 7 News List

9/11 rescue workers demand action over toxic cloud

HEROES SUFFER Many of the emergency personnel on duty during the World Trade Center disaster are falling prey to disease but finding it difficult to get compensation


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

But now Mazzola, a volunteer emergency worker, is plagued by shortness of breath, headaches, joint pain, and the chronic "World Trade Center 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.

"Our grave concern right now is what we're seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg," Donald Faeth said, an emergency medical technician and a union representative for other sick workers.

"There are people who died that day and didn't realize they died that day," he said.

At the Mount Sinai Medical Center 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 program.

"It's hard to know what to expect," Doctor 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 program 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 the September 11 attack, 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 two kilometers 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."

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