Feds Hit Over Ground Zero Workers’ Health Problems

September 12, 2006

Lawmakers said federal officials failed to protect ground zero workers as they clambered over the smoking pile of toxic debris and have not properly cared for them in the years since.

In a daylong House hearing last Friday, lawmakers criticized the government’s public assurances about the air around the World Trade Center site.

Christie Todd Whitman, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, stressed in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the air in lower Manhattan was safe, although she also said workers at the World Trade Center site needed to use protective breathing gear.

Whitman is being sued over her public assurances, and she was accused Friday of doing too little to protect workers.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who chaired the hearing, said Whitman’s September 2001 statements “defied logic and everybody knows that.”

Whitman defended herself Friday, insisting that it was up to local authorities to make sure the rescue workers wore protective breathing gear.

“We agreed then, and I reiterate now, that the air on the site was not clean — the consequence of millions of tons of burned debris from the most horrific attack in our nation’s history. We were emphatic that workers needed to wear respirators, a message I repeated frequently. But I did not have the jurisdiction to force workers to wear them — that was up to their superiors,” Whitman said in a statement.

City officials already under fire for their own role in the ongoing health problems disputed Whitman’s response.

City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said the federal government was responsible for work safety at the site, and said of Whitman’s post-Sept. 11 assurance, “I don’t think that was an appropriate way to word the message.”

Others appearing at the hearing before the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations, included Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who accused the EPA of lying to New Yorkers and endangering public health.

At a separate event Friday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the city’s handling of the disaster, saying it did distribute masks.

“Nobody knew whether there would be health issues down the road, and they made the decisions that they thought were right at the time,” said Bloomberg, who became mayor months after the attacks.

The hearing began with testimony from Joseph Zadroga, the father of James Zadroga, who died in January of respiratory disease attributed to ground zero exposure.

Joseph Zadroga briefly lost his composure as he described the day he found his NYPD officer son dead on his bedroom floor. The father blasted the city for doing nothing while his son was sick.

“He never received any assistance from the city,” Zadroga said. “He was treated like a dog.”

A health expert told the lawmakers that new patients are still arriving at her New York hospital to be treated for 9/11-related illnesses — and thousands will likely need lifelong care.

“There is no question that, as a result of their horrific exposures, thousands of World Trade Center responders have developed chronic and disabling illnesses that will likely be permanent,” said Dr. Robin Herbert, co-director of the Mount Sinai Medical Center program monitoring afflicted workers.

Mount Sinai released a study this week showing nearly 7 out of every 10 ground zero responders suffered lung problems.

The Bush administration said it will continue to help sick Sept. 11 workers but would not say what their long-term health needs might cost.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt told New York lawmakers Thursday that $75 million would be delivered in the next two months to pay for treatment programs.

Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Vito Fossella, R-N.Y., said $75 million is a good start but won’t come close to providing all the treatment needed for those suffering from lung problems, gastrointestinal disease and mental health woes.

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