Health of 9-11 Rescue, Cleanup Crews in Spotlight

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A New York City police detective who spent hundreds of hours helping the cleanup effort at Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, has died. His death has refocused attention on reports many other rescue and cleanup workers are suffering from respiratory ailments years after the attack, and there are new calls for a federal health czar to coordinate research and treatment.


From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY. A New York City police detective who searched through the rubble just after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center died recently, and his death has renewed fears in New York that the air around Ground Zero could have been dangerous. Now other emergency personnel who worked there are asking for federal help.

NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

For years now, doctors have known about the World Trade Center cough, a raspy hacking from some of the workers who spent the weeks after September 11th looking through the debris. But over the last seven months, three of those workers have died of respiratory illnesses, 34 year old detective James Adroggo(ph), who family members say contracted black lung disease; paramedic Felix Hernandez who became so weak he could no longer climb stairs; and EMT Tim Keller. His son David says his father began coughing off bits of gravel soon after the attacks and died of a long list of respiratory issues.

Mr. DAVID KELLER (Son of Rescue Worker): He had arterial sporadic heart disease, pulmonary emphysema, chronic asthmatic bronchitis and sleep apnea.

SMITH: Is there any question that this is related to 9/11?

Mr. KELLER: There shouldn't be any question. He was absolutely perfectly healthy before September 11th, and after that, it just went downhill.

SMITH: At Ground Zero yesterday, rescue workers returned to the site to ask for federal assistance. Republican Congressman Vito Fossella stood before them and called for the appointment of a federal health czar to coordinate the diagnosis and care of these workers.

Congressman VITO FOSSELLA (Republican, New York): Their deaths should be a clarion call to the entire Congress and the entire country to once and for all put somebody in charge to help those who need our help.

SMITH: The problem is no one knows for sure if the air at Ground Zero after the attacks is responsible for the recent deaths. Certainly the environment was filled with dust, smoke and chemicals from the destruction of the Trade Center, and studies at Mount Sinai medical center have shown that about half of the 16,000 workers they've examined have some sort of ongoing medical problem, but no one has linked September 11th with the chronic illness and death. After all, respiratory disease is the fourth leading cause of death among everyone in the United States. Dr. Robyn(ph) Herbert of the Mount Sinai program says there hasn't been the funding or the leadership for a full study.

Dr. ROBYN HERBERT (Mount Sinai): We know about a number of deaths really because of the vigorous work of the press, but there has not been a complete ascertainment of all deaths among World Trade Center responders, so I don't even really know how many people have in fact died who were down there.

SMITH: Back at the World Trade Center site, to even ask about scientific proof will get you shouted down. Marvin Bufai(ph), a paramedic who works at Ground Zero, waved his medications in my face.

Mr. MARVIN BUFAI (Paramedic): These are all my asthma medication right here. This is for my sinuses. This is for my high blood pressure, and this is for my anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. So how can you say that we're not sick? How can you say that we're not hurt?

SMITH: Vincent Forest(ph), a volunteer fireman, says they're running out of time to hear from federal officials and scientists about whether there is a definitive link.

Mr. VINCENT FOREST (Volunteer Fireman): We didn't wait as volunteers and as departments who arrived to make scientific proof if it was safe down here for us to get here. So I really believe that somebody, some organization, some entity in the government has to take our word for it and come in and help.

SMITH: Forest says maybe he was stupid not to wear a proper respiratory mask or to even respond at all, but then he just throws up his hands and says he'd probably do it again.

Robert Smith, NPR News New York.

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