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New York Times

Pols' inaction on WTC health care adds to the morass


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Nearly five years after the terrorist attack that destroyed the World Trade Center, a growing body of evidence suggests that a gathering storm of sickness and death is sweeping through the ranks of the thousands of rescue and recovery workers who searched and cleared Ground Zero just after the catastrophe.

These men and women - who gallantly ran into a hellish mix of burning steel and toxic dust after the twin towers collapsed - must now cope with researchers and bureaucrats who are working at a snail's pace. Nobody wants to sound a general alarm about the diseases that might kill Ground Zero workers.

When 34-year-old NYPD Detective James Zadroga died of an inflamed heart muscle, a medical examiner attributed it to his work at Ground Zero - but the city's health commissioner, Thomas Frieden, ruled out any link to Zadroga's work on the toxic pile.

A similar sluggishness came from Dr. John Howard, the federal officer in charge of 9/11 health concerns, when he visited the Daily News Editorial Board.

Millions of dollars were recently allocated for a health survey of those who were exposed to poisons at Ground Zero. They will be surveyed regularly over the next 20 years.

As always in America, questions about health swiftly end up as questions about insurance and liability. The city and federal governments appear to be dancing around the question of whether emergency workers might someday sue.

That's not good enough.

"These workers could be sick from any of tens of thousands of chemicals that we can't even check for," says Jim Woodworth, president of the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Project, which has treated 660 Ground Zero workers.

Woodworth is a Scientologist, and his center uses nontraditional methods to clean toxins out of the body. But many workers - many of whom think Scientology is a crock - swear by the results.

I recently met three patients who were in the middle of the month-long treatment, which includes heavy doses of niacin and selected oils, exercising on a treadmill and spending long stretches in a sauna.

I talked with an ironworker, a Sanitation worker and an Emergency Medical Service technician who had spent weeks working at Ground Zero, and years later were wracked with pain. All three said they got nothing from their doctors but a slew of medications that didn't seem to work.

And each had been told by the city that their aches, pains and nightmares were the "natural" result of aging, unrelated to Ground Zero.

I can't swear that the people I met got sick because of their work at Ground Zero - but I believe them. And I don't know whether Woodworth's detoxification routine represents the best treatment available.

What's important right now is to stop checking with the lawyers every 10 minutes and start helping the sick and dying heroes who did a tough job when the city asked.

It's time to sound the alarm.