WTC health deadline looms

Bill Gleason knows his friends and former coworkers may not be admitting to themselves that they are having serious health issues related to their rescue and cleanup work at Ground Zero after Sept. 11.

BY HEATHER MOYER | NEW YORK CITY | February 22, 2007

"The problem is, there are a lot of people out there with the same problems and they ignore it or they don't put two and two together."

—Bill Gleason

Bill Gleason knows his friends and former coworkers may not be admitting to themselves that they are having serious health issues related to their rescue and cleanup work at Ground Zero after Sept. 11.

A retired New York City Fire Department Lieutenant in the Emergency Medical Services, Gleason said those in his field are notorious for not getting medical help when they really need it. "We're the worst patients in the world," said Gleason, who retired due to health issues caused by working at Ground Zero. "That's just how we are - we don't want to admit that we're sick. We might have an arm hanging off and say, 'Oh I'm fine.'"

Gleason has joined the legion of state and local agencies and non-profits urging people in New York and around the country to register for New York State Sept. 11-related workers' compensation. The deadline to file is August 14, 2007, and agencies are reaching out across the country to more than 100,000 workers and volunteers who performed any type of rescue, recovery or cleanup work in the vicinity of the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, up until Sept. 12, 2002. Once approved by the New York State Workers' Compensation Board, the workers' compensation will help pay for medical bills related to problems caused by working in the toxic dust in and around Ground Zero.

Advocates say the volunteers who came to the city from all over the U.S. need to hear that they are eligible. Registration does not mean immediate approval or equate with filing a claim, but according to a release from the state workers' compensation board, "The filing of the sworn statement does however extend the time to file a claim." The same advocates also say that it does not matter if you qualify but are not sick now, health issues can arise later in life that this registration could benefit.

Only about 7,000 registrations have been received so far, and Gleason said people need to know that they must register to get help. "I don't care if you were there on day one or on the last day, go register," said Gleason. "When you're hearing the statistics from doctors about how many of us are sick, it's a lot of people."

Gleason's medical journey since Sept. 11 has been a slowly worsening trip. He worked more than 100 hours over six months at Ground Zero as a lieutenant in the Fire Department's Emergency Medical Services. The medical issues started almost immediately after his first day, when he realized he couldn't breathe out of his nose. From there the problems moved into recurring sinus and upper respiratory infections.

"You'd clear up from one infection and then another would start," he said. "It was back and forth. Every couple of weeks it was a new infection."

Gleason was then struck with appendicitis, and then later had several sinus surgeries. In March of 2004, Gleason suffered severe breathing problems one morning that prompted his fellow EMS workers to take him to the emergency room. He was then diagnosed with asthma. As his asthma attacks became worse, Gleason then filed for retirement that following November. He was 44 years old.

Since then his medical conditions have worsened. Gleason said he's on multiple medications, has sleep apnea and visits six doctors each month. He has another four doctors the he sees quarterly, he is being monitored closely by a cardiologist and he is now seeking out treatment from a dermatologist. The workers' compensation pays for the majority of the treatments.

The string of medical issues has Gleason concerned that other rescue workers and volunteers are not seeing the connections between their possible illnesses. "The problem is, there are a lot of people out there with the same problems and they ignore it or they don't put two and two together," he explained. "You know, maybe they have asthma but they're not linking it to their work at Ground Zero."

Gleason's medical problems have crippled his lifestyle and social life. A once active rock climber and skier, he now has to watch from the sidelines as his teenage children do those things. He said he was healthy before Sept. 11, a non-smoker and non-drinker. Now a stranger's perfume or extremes in temperatures can trigger a major asthma attack. He has a hard time ascending a few stairs or walking down a hallway without becoming winded.

He's also been watching too many of his friends die from their WTC-related illnesses. "Some of my friends need new lungs. Some of us are getting cancer. Every one of us that's sick is beginning to believe that the number (of people) who are going to die after Sept. 11 will far surpass the people who were killed that day."

Gleason knows there are many more issues to the recovery from the Sept. 11-related illnesses. He wonders if the workers compensation will expand to cover some of his other medical problems, and those of his friends. He's angry that no protection was offered to those working at Ground Zero besides flimsy paper dust masks, and he's angry that the Environmental Protection Agency told everyone the air was fine.

As he advocates for change and resources for his sick friends, he's still urging everyone eligible to register for the workers' compensation no matter what they did at Ground Zero.

Jonathan Bennett, public affairs director for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and a friend to Gleason, is also pushing the message to anyone who was at Ground Zero. He said that everyone even remotely exposed to the dust at Ground Zero should consider registering.

"Anyone who did cleanup work of any amount as a volunteer is eligible," Bennett said. "I don't know how to emphasize enough that this is not a job description, it's an activity. If you came back into your office after Sept. 11 and cleaned up for ten minutes or whatever - the vast majority of anybody who did any cleanup is eligible. The same applies to rescue. Those caught in the dust cloud on Sept. 11, even if that was their only exposure, are at pretty high a risk. My feeling is that anybody who was exposed ought to look very hard at how they might be eligible."

From there, he added, the burden is on the workers compensation board of New York State to deny those registrations, but people should still think hard about registering. "Nobody knows what the medical future holds for these people."

The city of New York is now sending out information to its retirees about the possible health risks from Ground Zero work and the resources available. NYCOSH and a coalition of other disaster recovery and health organizations are helping publicize the August 14 deadline around the U.S. Many rescue and cleanup volunteers traveled into NYC from elsewhere and may not know that they're eligible for workers' compensation. Agencies are sending out flyers to local health organizations and unions, as well as to state chapters of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD) and faith groups.

Florence Coppola of United Church of Christ (UCC) National Disaster Ministries said she regularly sends out notices, reminders and information about the registration process and deadline to UCC conferences across the country. Coppola said part of educating the public about the workers' compensation registration is letting them now it's not any type of testing process or invasion of their privacy.

"We're telling people this is not pejorative, this is a positive step," said Coppola, director of the UCC National Disaster Ministries. "It's not for experimental purposes or to put them in a study so they can be tracked - it's for their own benefit. It's also very easy to register."

The advocacy organizations agree with Gleason that there are many other layers and issues to the World Trade Center health problems that need continued vigilance, but that this workers' compensation extension offered last August was a positive step.

The UCC also supports and works closely with NYCOSH in getting the word out and being a voice for the affected workers and residents. "Technological-caused disasters are a major part of our disaster work," said Coppola.

"This is truly a justice issue. People worked in the area around Ground Zero for months and years, and they did not receive what they should have to protect themselves. If your illness is related to something you did five years ago, then you still have the right and you should have the right to apply for compensation when you can no longer work."

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Related Links:

New York State Workers' Compensation Board

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United Church of Christ National Disaster Ministries


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