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Years Later, WTC Rescue Workers Face Disease And Disability

Jun 6, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

Evidence is mounting that rescue workers at the World Trade Center were exposed to high levels of toxic dust and chemicals that have resulted in serious health problems.  In the months and years following the terrorist attacks, Ground Zero responders and their advocates have insisted that many who worked at the site were suffering from chronic respiratory illnesses as a result of this exposure.  Now, several studies have validated these claims.

Released last week, the initial findings of a three-year study conducted by the Mt. Sinai Medical Center found that of the 9,000 WTC responders examined, 70-percent had suffered some type of lung ailment after the attacks, and that 60-percent still faced respiratory problems.  Another report released by the FDNY in early May reported that cases of the rare lung disease sarcoidosis had risen dramatically among firefighters and EMS workers who had spent time at Ground Zero.

In the days after 9/11, thousands of rescue workers descended on Ground Zero to help with recovery efforts.  Sifting through dust and rubble, sometimes with their bare hands, many lacked the clothing and equipment that could have kept them safe from harm.  What’s worse, none of them were made aware of the dangers they faced.

Following attacks, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a series of statements assuring the public that the air around Ground Zero was safe to breathe.  On September 18th   Christine Todd Whitman, then head of the EPA, was quoted in a press release:  “Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, DC that their air is safe to breathe.”

But since then, numerous studies have found that such reassurances were false.  Rather, the Mt. Sinai study found that large amounts of pulverized glass, cement and toxins such as asbestos were present in the air around Ground Zero.

Now, thousands of rescue workers, once fit and healthy, are dealing with respiratory problems that leave them unable to work.  Many of these workers have been denied workers’ compensation and other benefits, often because they cannot prove that their illness is a result of time spent at Ground Zero. They face mounting medical bills, and many have no access to health insurance.  And researches fear the worst is yet to come.  Many of the chemicals that rescue workers were exposed to, like asbestos and dioxin, are dangerous carcinogens.  It is possible that the next wave of this tragedy will be a surge in cancer and cancer-related deaths among rescue workers.

This frightening prospect leads to speculation over how these ill rescuers will pay for medical care.  While Congress recently allocated $52 million for the treatment of Ground Zero-related illnesses, more funding will be needed.  Several groups have announced class action lawsuits against the EPA and other agencies that did not do enough to protect the health of emergency personnel.   Meanwhile, researchers at Mt. Sinai will continue their study, as it is apparent that it will take years to determine the full scope of this tragedy.

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