Workers face post-9/11 sickness

Life has not been easy after cleaning up Ground Zero, said one soft-spoken Polish immigrant Tuesday night.


"Suddenly we have this huge underserved population."

—Peter Turco

Life has not been easy after cleaning up Ground Zero, said one soft-spoken Polish immigrant Tuesday night.

Speaking at the Polish Consulate of the Republic of Poland in New York City, the man said he has been in the hospital six times in the past two years. He is also unable to work due to his sickness, which he and others believe was caused by the toxic mixture of dust at Ground Zero.

Such is the plight of numerous Polish immigrants in New York City who served as rescue and recovery workers at Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Tuesday night's meeting was aimed at shedding light on the increasing number of illnesses among these workers and finding them more help. St. Mark's Place Institute for Mental Health, also known as Unitas, helped organize the event.

"The illnesses are getting worse," said Peter Turco, clinical director of St. Mark's. "They've got pulmonary and respiratory problems."

St. Mark's was originally established to provide mental health care services for Polish and other eastern European Slavic populations in New York City. The agency's Sept. 11 Wellness and Recovery Programs include short and long term psychotherapy services, support groups, and casework to help with benefits and additional services.

Turco said St. Mark's started working with the Polish rescue workers almost two years ago - just when St. Mark's thought their work related to Sept. 11 was winding down. At first the workers were nervous about approaching anyone for help due to their immigration status, Turco added, but as the word spread about the available help, more workers began pouring in.

"For numerous undocumented immigrant workers at (Ground Zero), help has been out of reach," Turco wrote in a news release earlier in August. "Fears of deportation, language barriers and unfamiliarity with health services have been barriers for these workers to get the help they need."

The past year has been busy for Turco and St. Mark's now that the community is learning about the available help. "Working with the American Red Cross, we've served 600 clients in the past five months," he explained.

"Suddenly we have this huge underserved population. We just realized how deep the water is. It's kind of scary to think of how many more (with health problems) may be out there."

Other speakers from St. Mark's focused on the emotional and mental impact of Sept. 11 and the Ground Zero work. Many are coming forward now with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can lead to chemical and substance abuse, said Jean Mone of St. Mark's Substance Abuse services program. St. Mark's also offers a Sept.11 Child Wellness and Recovery Program.

"It is true that when a problem affects one family member, it affects the whole family," said Dr. Teresa Wandas of St. Mark's Awareness Youth Program.

To continue helping the affected workers and their families, St. Mark's has also aligned itself with New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS), the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), and Mount Sinai Hospital's World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program.

At Tuesday night's meeting, the business manager of the New York City Laborers Local 78 Union also spoke. Local 78 specializes in asbestos and hazardous waste removal and was heavily utilized at Ground Zero after Sept. 11. Pawel Gruchacz said 3,000 members of the union worked at Ground Zero, and while many had masks to protect from asbestos - those masks did not guard against toxins like lead or dioxin.

"Some 50 percent of our members are Polish and eastern European immigrants," said Gruchacz. "These immigrants devoted themselves to the city. They did not hesitate to risk their health and lives. They lacked the proper equipment and frequently worked six to seven days each week, sometimes working 12-hour days (at Ground Zero).

"The events of Sept. 11 have started to take their toll. Many have asthma and deal with wheezing and other respiratory issues."

Turco and Gruchacz both referenced several recent deaths in this Polish immigrant community, which they think are related to Ground Zero-caused illnesses. Another Local 78 worker who spoke during the evening said he knows that some of the undocumented workers who worked at Ground Zero and then returned to Poland have since died.

"Nobody knows what will happen in the next few years," said the man in Polish.

For NYDIS and the staff at Mt. Sinai, the challenge comes in the form of funding - both for medical treatment and for regular everyday bills the workers cannot pay if they cannot work.

Maggie Jarry, director of disaster recovery and advocacy at NYDIS, said they are providing vouchers to help workers pay for food, clothing, transportation, and other essentials. She added that many recovery workers are working against the medical advice from their doctors. Others just are not able to continue work.

"The gap we are dealing with is helping them with immediate needs," she explained, adding that NYDIS' Sept. 11 Unmet Needs Roundtable continues to hear cases for these workers.

Because many of the immigrants are in the country illegally, many do not have support systems to fall back on, added Jarry.

The way they are being treated now is appalling to many. Local 78's Pawel Gruchacz and others emphasized that the workers were not asked about their immigration status when they came to help at Ground Zero, yet now that very status is preventing them from receiving the needed assistance.

Local 78 is not the only immigrant community devastated by the after-effects of Sept. 11. She has spoken with many other unions and workers' communities that have included Hispanics, Russians, Portuguese, Italians, and Africans.

"These people seem a little like veterans to me," noted Jarry. "They were lauded as heroes for helping, yet now they are vulnerable and falling through the cracks."

For Scottie Hill, the social work and entitlements program manager at Mt. Sinai, the focus should also be on treating the workers - not just screening them.

"There's been no government funding for treatment, only for screening," said Hill. "Treatment and screening should be funded for 20 years due to the longer latency of these illnesses."

She said that while the doctors in Mt. Sinai's screening program do not think the cancer being diagnosed within workers right now is related to Sept. 11, they do think that cancer related to the Ground Zero dust will be diagnosed years down the road. Hill noted that there is a fight to get the $125 million originally earmarked for the state workers compensation fund re-appropriated for such a program.

Jarry said she has spoken with unions whose members worked at Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and in Shanksville after Sept. 11. All are worried about their health and what can be done. "Many are worried that the screening diagnosed them with something, but what comes next? What about treatment? They are frustrated."

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