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Growing Numbers of 9/11 Workers Have Illnesses Stemming from Time at Ground Zero


About 3,000 people died in the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. Six years later, experts say the attacks continue to devastate and even end lives. Among the casualties are many workers and volunteers who were exposed to the toxic smoke and dust of Ground Zero, where the World Trade Centers collapsed. Hundreds of firefighters, police, clean-up and recovery workers, and volunteers suffer serious health problems, both physical and emotional, or are disabled. VOA's Carolyn Weaver has a report.

Three people: a grief counselor, a disabled ironworker, and a former paramedic -- have joined together to advocate for fellow veterans of Ground Zero. They say they all suffered health effects from working at the site.

Marvin Bethea was on duty as a paramedic when the towers collapsed. "Think of someone taking a big bucket of toxic dirt and just dumping it down your throat. Not only could you not see, you could not breathe at all. I was covered from head to toe, and we were literally blowing out small pieces of concrete out of our nose. I sound very nasally -- all of this is burnt up inside."

Bethea suffered a massive stroke the following month, and is now retired on disability.

His friend John Sferazo was on the pile as an ironworker for about 30 days. "As you spent more and more time there, it almost felt as if someone was sitting on your lungs, and every time you get a lung infection, that is what it feels like. And you developed what was called a 'World Trade Center cough'."

Millions of pounds of plastics, heavy metals, glass and concrete were pulverized or burned in the World Trade Center's collapse, creating highly toxic smoke and dust. But soon after the disaster, officials said the air at Ground Zero was safe. Workers at the site were not given respirators, or even required to wear masks.

"Masks were not given out until several days later," says Sferazo. "And the problem with wearing a mask was that once masks were given out, we were already told maybe a day or two into wearing them, by our elected officials, that the air quality was safe to breathe and the water was safe to drink."

"Everyone on that site should have been fit-tested and wearing a respirator,” says Dr. Jacqueline Moline, “and if they could not wear it 100 percent of the time, they should have been wearing it 95 percent of the time."

Dr. Moline is director of the Mount Sinai Hospital program that currently treats 6,300 Ground Zero workers and volunteers. She says the air was never safe on the pile and problems now range from lung scarring and infections to ulcers and damage to the esophagus. "There have been some people who have died as a result of World Trade Center exposures. There have been a number of cases of individuals who have had such severe scarring lung disease that it's caused their death. I think over time there are other diseases that may emerge that will prove to be life threatening."

She notes that depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common psychological ailments in many Ground Zero workers. Both Bethea and Sferazo say they still suffer from it.

Bethea explains, "I cried every day for about 40 days. I was healthy, I was an athlete, I lost 16 people I knew that day."

Sferazo describes his experience. "You heard helicopters, you heard these jets, you are finding pieces of human beings everywhere. Does anyone really think that we thought about our health and safety?"

A recent federal report found that the cost of treating Ground Zero workers could exceed $300 million a year. That is far more than the amount allotted by the federal government thus far to deal with the problem. Experts estimates that as many as 20,000 workers and volunteers may need care eventually.

The three advocates -- Bethea, Sferazo and grief counselor Julie Hernandez have formed an organization called "Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes."