Effects of dust still unknown

Two years after the terrorist attacks, the hotline at the World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program is still ringing off the hook.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | September 11, 2003

"People were breathing mercury, dioxin, fine particles of glass and concrete."

—Florence Coppola

Two years after the terrorist attacks, the hotline at the World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program is still ringing off the hook.

The program, directed by The Mount Sinai Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, offers medical screenings and referrals for workers who may have breathed toxic dust in the aftermath.

"The need is still going strong, which astonishes me," admitted Diane Stein, outreach director. "The phone is ringing off the hook two years later."

Doctors involved in the program – there are some 33 clinics nationwide that participate – could conceivably follow up to 12,000 people for many years, Stein said.

And support from the faith community – specifically the United Church of Christ's (UCC) national disaster ministries network – has helped make it happen, she added.

Initially, the program received federal money to screen workers potentially affected by the harmful dust, but had no funds to follow up, she explained. "We could tell people they were sick and but then we could do nothing for them. And they couldn't afford medication."

Then the UCC offered support in two forms – monetary grants and the personal attention of advocates who were seasoned disaster responders. Florence Coppola, who oversees UCC’s domestic disaster response programs, was one of them.

And Coppola says the environmental aspect of the World Trade Center attacks is still, two years later, a disaster. "It's still going on," she said. "People were breathing mercury, dioxin, fine particles of glass and concrete. What will be the effects of that?"

Coppola and other UCC leaders – with some support from Church World Service – plan to work with the screening program for many months to come. The program also offers occupational health education, and people can visit the Web site to take a self-administered questionnaire.

There are workers and volunteers who were near Ground Zero or near the Staten Island Landfill – those who were involved in rescue, recovery, cleanup, restoration of essential services, and debris removal or sifting – who still don't realize there's a place to go for help.

Coppola said she also plans to continue a partnership with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH).

Leaders from NYCOSH agreed with Coppola and Stein about the lasting physical effects of the toxic dust that infiltrated areas near Ground Zero.

It's the ongoing disaster that inspired NYCOSH's first-ever partnership with a faith-based group, said Susan O'Brien, assistant director.

"What the UCC's funding has allowed us to do is continue to serve the community of people who are affected by the environmental aspects of this tragedy," said O'Brien.

And it's more than just money, she added. Working with faith-based advocates has enabled O'Brien and other NYCOSH leaders to reach people they never would have gotten to otherwise.

"Joining a partnership with a faith-based group had been eye-opening," said O'Brien. "It has been extremely exciting – a whole big eye-opening experience!"

Eye opening, she said, because UCC leaders were able to find the "invisible" needs and bring them to the forefront.

It was obvious to anyone watching national television coverage that firefighters and search-and-rescue crews were breathing in dust. But many others were invisible to the public eye and their needs went unnoticed – "office workers going back to work in offices that hadn't been cleared, people driving buses, day laborers who went in and cleaned offices a block or two from Ground Zero, lots of people who didn't speak English, to name a few," said O'Brien.

Working with the UCC, NYCOSH was able to outfit and deploy a mobile medical van, offering people free respiratory protection and referrals to appropriate follow-up medical care. "Many workers were experiencing health symptoms nobody was paying attention to," said O'Brien.

When UCC representatives first made contact with O'Brien, she warily thought of church groups she had seen volunteering at Ground Zero without being asked. "I wanted to tell those groups – get your people out of there, or at least get them a respirator. I mean, it's a wonderful impulse to want to volunteer. But at that time we just didn't need people without training roaming around."

What she found in the UCC was surprisingly different, she said. "They had training and knowledge, and many years of technological disaster experience.

"It has been a great partnership," she said.

Now NYCOSH is trying to get the word out to people that they may be eligible for worker's compensation if they are suffering negative physical effects from breathing the dust.

In the chaos that followed the attacks, many people were called to Ground Zero for a day, a week, or a month on temporary assignment, she said. "It was an upside-down situation. People were not at their normal jobs."

But, even two years later, changes are being made to compensation funds, she said, and with the help of the UCC, NYCOSH will try to help people figure out if they're eligible. "It's still an issue of sorting out potential funding sources and services," explained O'Brien. "We still need to help people make sense of a complex regulatory framework. And that takes some time."

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