Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The New Liquidators

Are we witnessing another uncomfortable repeat of history? It certainly seems that there are some striking parallels between the way the US government is handling the health of those workers who answered the call to clear Ground Zero and those who did the same at Chernobyl 20 years ago. April 28, 1986 marked the date that Chernobyl's nuclear power plant number 4 exploded, releasing clouds of radioactive materials into the atmosphere and causing extensive damage the area. The first firefighters arriving on the scene had no idea what they were up against, and they quickly succumbed to massive doses of radiation poisoning. The Soviet government quickly marshaled together a huge force of soldiers and conscripts to undertake the
massive task of extinguishing the fires and creating a containment facility for the devastated reactor building. It took more than a week to extinguish the fires.

Those people who sought to contain the fires and radiation came to be known as liquidators. Many had no idea what they were dealing with and soldiered on to complete the task of enclosing the destroyed nuclear reactor in a concrete sarcophagus that would hopefully contain the nuclear materials still present at the
site. The soldiers swarmed the nearby countryside trying to gather together nuclear materials so that they can be disposed of.

The concrete sarcophagus was built and the immediate danger of further radioactive releases from the destroyed reactor was contained. The liquidators went on with their lives although some unknown number came down with illnesses that could be linked back to their time cleaning up the Chernobyl site. No one quite knows the numbers who succumbed from Chernobyl because the Soviets desperately sought to hide the truth not only from the West, but from their own people. There are no accurate numbers of those killed or injured from Chernobyl - the numbers range from under 100 to the tens of thousands.

Meanwhile, a world away and nearly two decades later, on September 11, 2001, Islamic terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged more than a dozen other buildings in Lower Manhattan. Millions of square feet of office space was in ruins or contaminated by debris from the collapsed towers. A huge rescue and recovery effort was mounted by emergency personnel and construction workers. Fires burned at the site for months, with smoke, gases, and particulates pouring from the pile. All through this time, those workers worked around the clock to find remains so that loved ones could gain some semblance of closure and clear the site.

Those people worked on the Pile for months at end until the nearly 2 million tons of rubble, remains, and debris was cleared from the site.

Throughout that time, the workers were assured that the air was within safety limits and that as long as they used respirators and other safety equipment they would not suffer any ill effects.

We now know that the EPA should not have made definitive statements assuring workers that the air was safe to breathe. It was not. The air was contaminated with all sorts of materials, including volatile organic compounds, pulverized concrete, and
asbestos. Respirators and other safety masks were either eschewed or their utility limited in dealing with all the contaminants.

So it is worrisome that we now hear about cases of those working on the Pile suffering the ill-effects from their endeavors. Some have become permanently disabled due to respiratory ailments, and in one instance, a New Jersey medical examiner ruled that police officer James Zadroga died as a result of working at the Pile. Zadroga spent 470 hours working on the Pile.

Some have made excuses their illnesses noting the difficult job of tracing the source of a variety of ailments to exposure at Ground Zero. City, state and
federal law make it incredibly difficult for some to obtain needed health care or disability payments because the statute of limitations comes into play. The City Health Department is currently tracking 70,000 people to see whether they are suffering ill effects from exposure to Ground Zero contaminants. A study at Mount Sinai Medical Center has found that 70% of those working at Ground Zero have suffered some form of respiratory ailment as a result of working at Ground Zero. That could be anything from respiratory failure to nagging coughs or other issues. 61% of those who now suffer from these ailments were not sick prior to their service at Ground Zero.
Mount Sinai Medical Center doctors - who said the study provides conclusive proof that the WTC site caused illnesses - also found 61 percent of first responders and cleanup workers had no health problems before 9/11 and became ill after working downtown.

Another 9 percent had pre-existing health ailments - such as asthma - but became sicker from working at or near the collapsed trade centers.

One-third had "abnormal" lung capacity - more than double the national rate. And the number of workers who came down with pneumonia also increased significantly, the report said.
The men and women who worked on the Pile and completed this task deserve to be treated better than the liquidators who cleaned up Chernobyl. They should get honest and unvarnished information from all levels of the government about the air conditions at the site. There should be recognition that some of those at the site eschewed the use of the respirators and other safety equipment and that this may have contributed to the declining health conditions of some workers. And
most importantly, ensuring that they have access to medical care and treatment for Ground Zero related ailments should be the absolute minimum. This shouldn't be about cost. It should be about honoring those who did the hard work of clearing the site of
the worst terrorist attack on US soil and remembering that those attacks are still claiming victims.

The City has announced a plan to deal with the health crisis, and includes guidelines for identifying ailments relating to work at Ground Zero. That's an important step, as is further study to determine not only what is causing the ailments facing these people, but finding treatments and cures to these potentially fatal conditions.

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