September 11 still claiming clean-up workers

More than 80 asbestos workers who helped clean up Ground Zero have died since 2001, according to the secretary-treasurer of the Asbestos, Lead & Hazardous Waste Laborers’ Local 78, Pawel Gruchacz..

More than half the 2,000 members of the union helped in the rescue mission in 2001. More than half were of Eastern European origin, mainly Poles.

At first they would work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Later they cut down the hours a bit. Some worked for weeks, others for months, while some were unable to hold out for no more than two or three days.

Anyone asked about working conditions at Ground Zero always said: the air was filled with all the elements of the periodic table. Among the particles floating from the debris was carcinogenic asbestos, which was used to build the World Trade Center and had only partially been removed from the towers after the bombing plot in 1993. Other chemicals included mercury from broken fluorescent bulbs, lead from crushed computers and paint that had covered the buildings’ metals parts. Among the most hazardous was dioxin. With this, many have looked into it and asked is it law to have an asbestos survey?

Gigantic amounts of cement dust filled the air. The dust had alkaline pH, which in combination with water scorched mucous membranes, and penetrated into the respiratory system, lungs and eyes.

Only some of the employers trained the Ground Zero workers and equipped them with proper gear. Asbestos workers were better prepared than others, but even they were not able to keep their masks on for 12 hours straight.

“Many of them are suffering from illnesses now. The list of the sick is getting longer,” said Jozef Pogorzelski, who worked at Ground Zero two and a half months and then cleaned toxic dust off fire trucks. Later he was diagnosed with diabetes, sleep apnea and asthma. Doctors also discovered changes in his lungs and then found thyroid cancer, but were able to remove the tumor.

Since May 2003, Pogorzelski has not been fit to work.

For many workers the first signs of health issues were depression and nightmares. A number of them have sought help at the mental health clinic UNITAS in Manhattan. Some 700 asbestos workers have gone there since 2001.

Mount Sinai Medical Center, on the other hand, treated them for a whole gamut of physical ailments. Seventy percent of ground zero workers, who went to Mount Sinai to seek treatment, suffered from respiratory problems of all kinds.

“The problem is that there is a list of ailments whose treatment is covered with the funds appropriated for Ground Zero workers. The list, however, does not include cancer,” said Pogorzelski. The funds from the recently voted Zadroga Bill, for now, do not cover the cost of cancer treatment.

Many people suffer from heart problems as well. “Actually, most of the 80 people we lost died of a heart attack and stroke,” said Pawel Gruchacz, who pointed out that before 2001, deaths among Local 78 members were only sporadic. Each year in November Local 78 prays for those who have died at a special Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

It is hard to follow up on each person who worked in Ground Zero and then got sick. Many, like Pogrzelski, lost the ability to work. Some applied for workers’ compensation and now are getting modest monthly benefits. Those who were legal residents of the U.S. were able to apply for Social Security pensions. Some have decided to demand compensation in court, suing building owners or contractors.

Such cases can take many years, though. “Many, who could not withstand the pressure, have gone back to Poland,” Pogorzelski says.

“Some did not have a legal status and after the Department of Homeland Security changed its regulations, they were not able to renew their asbestos licenses without presenting a state issued ID. They simply had no prospects for the future here,” said Gruchacz.

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