The long tail of WTC toxic exposures

April 11th, 2006 by Julie Ferguson

Health experts predict that the health implications for the workers involved in the World Trade Center cleanup will take more than 20 years to be fully evident. A recent article in the PhillyBurbs discusses the frustrations that sick workers and health authorities alike are having in trying to come to grips with the health ramifications of post 9-11 cleanups. The World Trade Center Health Registry is faced with the daunting task of trying to track information on some 71,437 people who worked at ground zero, but even the matter of keeping a running tally of deaths is proving difficult. And although the health tracking is an important effort, many wish that there were less emphasis on the future and more on addressing the serious health issues that are emerging every day. In many cases, the workers have no financial or medical protection:

“Through its worker compensation program, the U.S. government has taken a dim view of any injury claim not directly from the day of the attacks.

Allen, 46, was one of the 485 federal employees to file for workers compensation claiming injuries from the aftermath at ground zero. Virtually all of those claims, some 478, were either rejected by the government or abandoned. Of the claims stemming from the day of the attacks, the government approved nearly all 987 of those.

New York state received 8,491 injury and exposure claims due to the events of Sept. 11 or the cleanup effort. About 680 – less than 10 percent – remain unresolved, but New York state insists it still has no idea how many of its resolved claims were granted or rejected.”

Terrible stories are surfacing about WTC workers who are suffering severe and incapacitating disabilities – some are dying in poverty with inadequate medical care, and these stories will become more common as time goes on. At the time of the event, praise for the heroics of these workers was profuse – we need to find a way to care for these workers so those words don’t ring hollow.
If the experience of the workers in the nation’s nuclear defense industry are any measure, help may not be quick in coming. While it looks like these workers eventually found some relief, the next generation, toxic site cleanup workers, are exposed to serious health risks and the first workers comp claims are being filed.
Toxic exposure and toxic torts
Toxic exposures pose a unique challenge for the workers compensation system. Workers who contract occupational illnesses have a much harder time of making their case for compensation than a worker who suffers an occupational injury from a single event. It may be years before an illness surfaces, and even then, it is difficult to prove that the exposure was solely related to work and not to exposure that may have occurred in ordinary life. In some cases, such as radiation exposures or asbestosis, the dangers are so clearly linked to the exposure that the case is clear. But with the WTC, it’s unclear if any accurate analyses of the toxic residues have been conducted. Certainly, the WTC environmental dangers were at best underestimated and at worst falsified by the EPA in the immediate wake of the events.
When workers compensation does not provide remedy, toxic torts often are the result, such as in the popcorn lung case. As the number of ill and dying WTC workers who have no workers comp coverage expands, we will have to see if the courts will be the place where workers turn for relief.