Some months back, Paul Krugman of the New York Times reported that the Environmental Protection Agency was pressured by the Bush White House not to reveal the real dangers posed to workers and residents of Lower Manhattan by contaminants raised in the collapse of the World Trade Center. Levels of dioxins and carcinogens, long known to damage the human nervous system and cause birth defects, were found by the EPA shortly after the September attacks to have been at 1,500 times normal levels. Given that the area in question was Lower Manhattan - an area to this day congested with heavy auto traffic and a capitalist production hub for close to four centuries - this was no niggling detail.
Still, the Bush regime and the then outgoing Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, led many residents and workers in Lower Manhattan to believe that once the outside air had cleared, little threat was posed. But it was known at the time that greater dangers were posed by dust that was generated to indoor environments. Claims cited by authorities in order to renew business activity were the usual "national security" dodge, and of course, the pressing need to re-open Wall Street offices for the money-changers. No great surprises there.
But beyond the callousness exhibited by the ruling class toward indoor workers in the months following the tragedy, it would now appear that many of the people who worked to clean up the debris from the attack-firefighters - at the time lauded as "heroes" - are suffering from long-term health effects that will go neglected by worker safety authorities in New York City.
As we go to press, an investigation of worker’s compensation claims in New York has charged that many firefighters did not receive protective gear during the first two weeks of the clean-up, which involved prolonged exposure to asbestos and the handling of thousands of body parts. 40 percent of the workers who cleaned up Ground Zero had no health insurance, and 75 percent have reported ongoing respiratory difficulties.
Manhattan’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, in noting the numerous cases of people denied medical compensation by the Worker’s Comp Board, has referred to the aid system created by federal and state agencies as "dysfunctional". Funds collected for the clean-up crews have largely been directed for volunteers who helped clear out Ground Zero, with the justification from the State Worker’s Board that employer’s insurance is expected to cover claims generated by workers. Regional directors of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have also argued that workers at the site often failed to wear protective respiratory equipment. But the firefighters’ spokespersons have responded that protracted rescue operations were often hindered by such equipment, and in any event, it is impossible to wear a respirator for twelve hours.
As for workers who dealt with indoor contaminants in Lower Manhattan, no protection was offered at all, and this is admitted by OSHA. Given the treatment that is alleged by workers who dealt with the outside disaster, it is hard to imagine that the people who dealt with contaminants on the insides of buildings - many of them immigrant laborers - will receive any better treatment.
Two years after the worst terrorist attack on United States’ soil, the attitude of EPA, OSHA, and New York State Worker’s Compensation Boards appears to be "business as usual". There is a terrorism that is generated by bombs, guns, and passenger planes turned into missiles, but all of these are nothing when compared to the terror of a speculative production system gone berserk. Deep as the tragedy of September 11th was, it is a far more profound tragedy that Bush, Giuliani and other figureheads of the United States ruling class are allowed to so handily dismiss the right to basic health care to so many of the Firefighting laborers. Where are all the paens to our heroes now?