A new AFL-CIO report shows that more than 13,000 of the truly heroic firefighters, police and other rescuers who were the first to rush to the scene of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001 are still being treated for the serious injuries they received.
They were exposed to a highly toxic mix of chemicals, jet fuel, asbestos, lead, glass fragments and other debris that caused a wide range of respiratory, intestinal and mental health problems. Also exposed were nearly 53,000 other first responders who are being monitored for signs of 9/11 related illness. Yet another 71,000 are being watched closely because they also were exposed to the extremely harmful toxins while helping clear debris.
The number of reported victims continues to grow. For example, another new study, from the Mount Sinai Medical Center, shows that some 70 percent of the 10,000 workers involved in the cleanup who were tested between 2000 and 2004, now say they have new or more serious respiratory illnesses.
In addition to firefighters and police, the victims include construction workers, residents of the area and school children, among others. The new report, by the AFL-CIO's James Parks and Mike Hall, focuses in part on one of the first to reach Ground Zero — Vito Friscia, a Brooklyn homicide detective. He was only a block away when the second of the Twin Towers fell. He rushed to the site through a dense cloud of toxins to seek – and to rescue – survivors. Friscia spent a week helping with the rescue efforts.
Today, Detective Friscia has a deep cough that won't go away, chronic sinus problems and shortness of breath.
"But I'm no hero," he insists. "I was just doing my job." Many others involved in the rescue efforts say pretty much the same thing – that they were just doing their jobs as police officers, firefighters or as other public service employees.
Frisia's sister-in-law, Maria Pusteri, has produced a documentary film, "Vito After," which takes a detailed look at what the detective has endured since his rescue efforts. The film, first released in 2005, recently made its international debut in London.
What's needed now, the AFL-CIO says, is to provide long-term medical care and careful monitoring of the tens of thousands of rescue and recovery workers and community members whose health remains at serious risk because of their exposure to contaminated materials.
The AFL-CIO rightly blames part of the problem on Republican opposition. For instance, the Bush administration refused to create or support a permanent research, monitoring and health care program for Ground Zero workers. And the administration also cut funding for health care related to the 9/11 cleanup.
Just before the congressional recess in August, House Republicans managed to block a bill – the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act – that would provide $7.5 billion for long-term monitoring and health care of victims.
This prompted another of the ailing first responders, Greg Staub, to complain that "they told us if we did our job, they'd take care of us. We did our job. Now we're sick and they don't remember who we are anymore." Staub was forced to retire from the New York City Fire Department last year because of chronic lung problems stemming from his rescue efforts.
The odds, however, are that the House Republicans will not be able to block passage of the proposed Health and Compensation Act when comes up for a second vote, which is expected soon.
Those who rushed to Ground Zero to help the 9/11 victims clearly need – and certainly deserve – lots of help, probably at least as much as provided by the bill. As one of those treating the 9/11 victims noted, "Our patients are sick, and they will need ongoing care for the rest of their lives."
Providing that care is the very least we can do.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.