From Heroes to Zeros--WTC workers dangle as the bills roll in

Tuesday, September 05, 2006 at 04:58 PM

Ask any elderly veteran fighting the VA system for medical and nursing care how long hero status lasts.  Or ask any of the many, many World Trade Center workers who searched and cleared the site after 9/11.

From Newhouse news:

Today, thousands of men and women who spent weeks or months in the debris at the World Trade Center site are battling health problems, including respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and other severe illnesses.

A series of scientific studies have linked the ailments directly to work at Ground Zero. One published last month, by lung specialists at Montefiore Medical Center, found that the average rescuer among 12,079 New York firefighters and emergency personnel experienced a decrease in lung function equivalent to 12 years of aging in the first year following the attacks.

Though no one questions that thousands of Ground Zero workers are getting sick, the battle over who is responsible and who should pay the medical costs promises to tie up workers in disputes for years, if not decades.

And we're not talking about a few coughing fits, or susceptibility to colds and the flu; we're talking about serious, debilitating, and long-term illnesses that ruin lives.

Most mornings Jeffrey Endean gasps so hard for breath that he can barely get out of bed.

Once up, he uses steroid inhalers to fight the inflammation in his lungs and takes a pill to ward off an acute asthma attack. Without medication, simply walking his dogs or playing with his grandchildren could land him in the hospital.

Doctors have told him he has a rare form of asthma, his vocal cords and larynx are damaged, and his lungs are so scarred they look "leathery." His sinuses often bleed and he is prone to headaches, chest infections and acid reflux. Rheumatoid arthritis, linked to his weak immune system, can make his hands throb so badly, he can hardly turn a wrench.

Five years ago, as a commander for the Morris County Sheriff's Office in New Jersey, the former SWAT team leader and K-9 squad chief was among 40,000 people who worked the World Trade Center site after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Volunteering night and weekend shifts for more than two months, Endean provided stress counseling to emergency workers who were untangling the heap of nearly 2 million tons of twisted steel and concrete, amid a cloud of toxic dust, burning fuels, metals and other poisons.

And of course--and I mean of course, the authorities found no real reason for concern at the time of the clean-up efforts:

"The EPA said the air was safe," said Endean, 56. "That was all the talk -- it was just dust. Of course, it turned out to be a lot more than just dust."
At the time, government officials said the air was safe. On Sept. 13, 2001, federal Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Todd Whitman stood on Canal Street north of Ground Zero and declared to reporters that the air over Lower Manhattan was safe to breathe. She and the EPA issued similar statements in the days and weeks that followed.

The EPA's inspector general, or internal watchdog, later found that the agency had given misleading assurances. In February, U.S. District Judge Deborah A. Batts criticized Whitman for reassuring New Yorkers soon after the attacks that it was safe to return to their homes and offices, saying Whitman's actions were "without question, conscience-shocking."

Could there be a better example of when the government should simply step in and fund the medical care and illness consequences, and worry about ultimate responsibility after seeing to it that these people are cared for?

There is no way these people should be forced to bear the consequences of cleaning up the WTC site after spending agonizing hours searching for survivors. I don't care if its the city, state or fed government, or all three.