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Abestos Workers Who Toiled Near Ground Zero Sick 6 Years Later

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The recent fire at the Deutsche Bank building and the controversy that followed has reminded people once again of the environmental hazards that were left behind after September 11th. While for many awareness of these problems has just been reawakened, thousands of workers who participated in cleanup efforts that followed the Twin Towers collapse believe they are ill, due to the dust they breathed back then.

REPORTER: As part of our occasional series, “Feet in Two Worlds”, Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska has this report on one group of workers who were already accustomed to work with hazardous materials, and trained to protect themselves from them, but who still say that chemicals and contaminants floating in the air after the terrorist attack made them sick.

Even under the best of circumstances, asbestos removal is a hazardous job. And Lower Manhattan after 9/11 was a hazardous place. Miroslaw Gorczkowski worked 4 months on the cleanup, mostly at the World Financial Center. Walking around the site 6 years later the images of the work he did back then keep coming back.

[Sounds of construction at WTC]

Interview with Mirek Gorczkowski -- in Polish

GORCZKOWSKI: when you entered this kind of building for the first time… the only thing you saw was dust up to the knees - dust everywhere, and sometimes there were firefighters and police officers… and then we had to clean it all, the work usually started with pouring water, sometimes firefighters would come and spray it… it wouldn't even make sense to do it by hands… and then we would put it in the bags, and take it to the garbage tracks, and garbage track would take it away somewhere…

REPORTER: Miroslaw says that when they entered the buildings for the first time, the only thing you saw was dust. It was up to their knees. Sometimes firefighters had to come and spray water on it. Then workers had to put it into bags and take it to garbage tracks that would carry it to landfills.

Interview with Miroslaw Gorczkowski

GORCZKOWSKI: in November I went through skull trepanation, because they discovered 2 tumor in my head, they gave me 5 month … they took 1 tumor away, and after that I was on intravenous drip, and I underwent rehabilitation, and then they took me to the hospital… all together I spent 7 months in the hospital…

Yes I was learning how to walk again, I was learning to coordinate my movements, at first I couldn’t read, because I was not able to make sense out of words… I couldn’t go from line to line, but after a while I was able to do it… I still don’t read that fluently… but for myself it’s enough…

REPORTER: Today, Miroslaw looks like an old and tired man. In 2006 doctors removed an abscess from his brain. After the surgery, at the age of 50, he had to learn to walk and read again. He was also diagnosed with diabetes, lung lesions, and chronic cough. Unable to earn a living, he was forced to move to a homeless shelter.

Miroslaw was one of about 3,000 workers in Local 78 of the Asbestos Lead and Hazardous Waste Laborers. They worked around the World Trade Center site in the months following 9/11. They got ptaid the undion wage of $23.15 and hour plus benefits. The union at the time was comprised mainly of Polish immigrants – many of them undocumented. Union treasurer Pawel Gruchacz says about 30 members have died since 2004.

Interview with Pawel Gruchacz

GRUCHACZ: prior to that we had some deaths, but the causes was accidents on the jobs and other reasons … however we see the increasing number right after 9/11 but (((like I said,))) if that's the reason, it's not up to me to determine

REPORTER: Henryk Piesta died of heart failure in November 2004, a month after medical testing at Mt Sinai center found fluid and scarring in his lungs. Piesta had a history of heart disease. But his daughter Kasia believes that the toxins he was exposed to at the World Trade Center site hastened his death.

Interview with Kasia Piesta (in Polish)

PIESTA: We blame also ground zero to some extent, because…I don't think earlier exposure could affect him so much…. Down there the concentration of it all was bigger, and there were more substances… their work on regular asbestos project cannot be compared to their work at ground zero… so ground zero definitely affected it… sped up the process…

REPORTER: Kasia thinks the concentration of different substances at the site was much more intense than her father’s previous work with asbestos.

Henryk Piesta was a unionized asbestos worker for 3 years. He was assigned to the cleanup effort at the World Trade Center for about a week. Could such a short period of exposure have contributed to his death? Mount Sinai Hospital’s Dr Stephen Levin says lung scarring can come from brief, intense exposure, but typically takes years to develop. On the other hand, some types of heart disease can be made worse by asthma and other breathing problems.

LEVIN: Coronary artery disease – where the blood supply to the heart muscle is interfered with, and therefore oxygen isn’t getting to the heart muscle adequately -- if you’re not oxygenating your blood well because your lung function is impaired, can make that problem worse.

REPORTER: Levin studies the health effects of asbestos exposure, among other things and has worked on Mount Sinai’s World Trade Center screening and treatment programs. He says the asbestos workers faced similar conditions as other workers – and have developed similar health problems.

642/1:37 Those Polish workers . . . often were exposed to this highly irritating material. . . . 2:40 and it produced immediate health effects because there were respiratory burns both in their upper airways, their sinuses, their nasal passages, their throats, as well as their chest…so we’re seeing high rates of asthma…persistent cough, shortness of breath .. . . . …not because of asbestos they were exposed to, but because of other components that were immediately irritating and don’t take 20 years to develop . . .

During the cleanup, asbestos workers were more likely to use respirators and other protective gear than firefighters, construction workers and others. But Jozef Pogorzelski says that safety rules were often ignored. He worked at the Verizon building at 140 West Street.

Interview with Jozef Pogorzelski

POGORZELSKI: at the very beginning we were not allowed to put the masks on while walking towards the building… our supervisors told us not to put it on until we entered the building…

They were not efficient... at the beginning we were forbidden to wear them because they didn’t want to cause the panic among others… and it was the worst period, because everything that was floating in the air was very active… and also we were eating, drinking, and changing pretty much in the same area …

REPORTER: He says that at the beginning workers from his crew were not allowed to wear masks outside of the buildings. The supervisors worried that the image of them wearing respirators could scare others. He also says they were eating, drinking and changing without leaving the site.

Jozef worked there for two-and-a-half months. Then he cleaned up dust from fire trucks. He's been diagnosed with diabetes, sleep apnea, asthma and lung lesions. He also had thyroid cancer. The the tumor was successfully removed but Jozef has not been able to work since May 2003.

--Sounds of him coughing / using inhalator--

POGORZELSKI: There are a lot of things of this kind... I can't play soccer because it's impossible, I can't swim, most probably I won't be able to drive a car… I can't claim the ladder, I can't dance, In fact, I can't even really walk… walking for me is very difficult… stairs--- it a disaster, big disaster, I'm not even talking about lifting heavy stuff…

REPORTER: He says he can't play soccer, swim or dance. He can't even walk without difficulty or lift anything heavy. Instead he takes many medications and sleeps with an oxygen mask.

Since 9/11, as many as 1,000 members of the asbestos workers union are unable to work. Some have been disabled by health problems. Others, who are undocumented immigrants, can’t work because of tightened immigration laws. Jozef Pogorzelski has been affected by both. He and many others have been unable to renew their asbestos-removal licenses.

Interview with Jozef Pogorzelski -- in Polish

POGORZELSKI: I can only blame the authorities that they are treating us this way…back then they needed us at that very moment, and they would take us without asking whether anybody had a permission to work, or legal papers… just go and work, and we went there and worked but now these people who worked there need help, and now everybody forgot about them, and no one think of them anymore…

REPORTER: Jozef says, in the past, city and state agencies awarded licenses without asking whether workers had legal papers. And it was certainly that way in September. And it was only later, that their immigration status became important. Now when the workers need help, he says everybody has forgotten about them. Union leader Gruchacz says there’s a reason why immigrants are the main people doing asbestos removal.

GRUCHACZ: The only people left willing to do this work . . . people who are born in this country, with all due respect, I don’t think so (many) have interest to get involved in the asbestos industry. Even if the wages were around $100 [an hour] – I don’t think you could find people who are American citizens who are willing to do this kind of work.

REPORTER: Among Polish asbestos workers there is a sense of disappointment and betrayal.

Without documentation, Jozef and other workers cannot apply for Social Security benefits. He is able to get workers compensation, but it's only 400 dollars a month. He has to share his apartment with two roommates. At least he is able to get free medical assistance at Mt Sinai hospitals. That’s something he’s not confident he’d have, if he returned to Poland. Many Polish workers have thought about going back. And it’s not just medical treatment that’s keeping them here. They wonder if the family they left behind will welcome them, especially now that they are sick and poor. For WNYC, I’m Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska.

WNYC’s Fred Mogul contributed to this report.

"Feet in Two Worlds" is a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, linking public radio and ethnic media, and reporting on New York's immigrant communities.

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