The labor movement is advocating a more compassionate federal response to the long list of health problems suffered by workers, firefighters, police and union members like Shirley Rausher in the horrific weeks after the biggest terrorist attack in U.S. history.
Rausher, a member of the Professional Staff Congress at Fiterman Hall in lower Manhattan, a block from the World Trade Center, has suffered serious respiratory and eye problems after getting official approval to return to work in the weeks after 9/11. She suffers now from severe allergies despite a regimen of medications and the unknowns of her medical future.
"I'm now sensitive to seasons," said Rausher, adding that it is too painful for her to go into Central Park now that plants are beginning to bloom.
As an adjunct faculty member teaching English with an unpredictable schedule, Rausher is not assured of getting health insurance from the City University of New York. She buys her own health insurance.
With a variety of union members affected, the New York State AFL-CIO submitted a statement to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pension on March 21. NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi attended the hearing.
The AFL-CIO recommended three cornerstones for prospective legislation:
expansion of monitoring and treatment at Mount Sinai Medical Center, the Fire Department of New York and Bellevue Hospital;
provisions for long-term medical treatment; and
compensation for losses.
The day after the testimony, a bipartisan group of congressional reps, including Vito Fossella and Carolyn Maloney of New York, introduced a bill to provide health care and compensation for victims of the 9/11 cleanup and beef up monitoring.
"It was important to stand at the side of our sisters and brothers in the labor movement for the rescue workers and first responders on that awful day," said Iannuzzi. "This is not just about our members, like Shirley Rausher, many of whom certainly suffered. It's about labor coming to the aid of those who always respond unselfishly at the time of need."
Dave Kotelchuk, PSC's health and safety co-chairman, said a number of people from Borough of Manhattan Community College have gone to Mount Sinai with health problems. The union is monitoring respiratory problems among those who were exposed.
As Sept. 11, 2001, dawned, Rausher was getting ready to go to class at Fiterman Hall, part of BMCC. Then, terrorists struck.
Carcinogen-laced debris swept off the collapsed twin towers. WTC 7 fell against Fiterman Hall, which remains vacant to this day.
To house faculty and students in the aftermath of the attack, CUNY put up trailers adjacent to a site where debris was being loaded onto barges. Two weeks after the attack, officials told Rausher it was safe to return to work in the trailers.
The Environmental Protection Agency had declared the area "safe," but Rausher knew something wasn't right when she approached the trailer site and her eyes began tearing so badly she could barely see. Since then, she has suffered asthma and allergy problems. She said she never had allergies before. She was put on a heavy-duty antihistamine and briefly hospitalized.
For three semesters, she experienced throat and nose pain typical of an onset of flu. She felt better on weekends.
"The air quality was totally impossible," Rausher said in an interview this month with New York Teacher. "We were breathing in an incendiary area. Then the dumping that was taking place was literally outside our door."
Trucks passed the trailers, carrying WTC detritus to be dumped onto barges. Cleaners used strong, caustic products, then left windows open - against regulations - thinking they were helping to air out the trailers.
Rausher was scheduled to serve at an information booth March 28 at BMCC, letting staff and faculty know how to register with the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health and about city funding for responders and workers with asthma problems.
"The whole labor movement is supporting funding for those who worked on the pile and those affected by 9/11, including workers from BMCC," Kotelchuk said. "If the exposures caused cancer, you wouldn't see it for about 20 years."
Funds running out
Last year's $58 million in funding for medical treatment for WTC responders, administered through Mount Sinai and FDNY, is expected to last only until July, according to the AFL-CIO.
President Bush has included $25 million for medical monitoring and treatment in his budget request, but at least $250 million a year is needed, the labor federation asserts.
A study of Ground Zero first responders by Mount Sinai Medical Center found nearly 70 percent had suffered new or worsened respiratory problems as a result of work at the WTC site, the AFL-CIO reports.
FDNY reports show that 90 percent of fire rescue workers suffered new respiratory problems, experiencing an average loss of 12 years of lung capacity.
Gastrointestinal and mental health problems abound. Concern is growing about the development of cancers and other chronic diseases.
"Despite these widespread serious problems, the Bush administration has been reluctant to acknowledge the growing 9/11 health crisis and to assist the victims," the AFL-CIO states.
While costs have been shifted to health insurers, many workers have become too ill to work, losing income and health insurance.
For more information, see www.nycosh.org.
- Liza Frenette