Voinovich, Clinton Introduce First Responders Legislation

Senators George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), along with Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Christopher Shays (R-Ct.) have introduced legislation that would provide free medical screenings to first responders, volunteers, and emergency personnel who respond to national disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Disaster Area Health and Environmental Monitoring Act of 2005 authorizes the president to carry out a program for the protection, assessment, monitoring and study of the health and safety of emergency personnel, volunteers and workers who respond to a disaster and assist in the cleanup, if the president declares that a dangerous substance is being released. The program involves informing and protecting responders against possible health impacts, monitoring them over the short and long term, providing medical referrals, and ensuring that any information is used to prevent or protect against future incidents.

The bill also provides for a two-year reauthorization of the Pre-Disaster Mitigation program, which is set to expire on Sept. 30, 2007. The program provides technical and financial assistance to states and local governments for projects to reduce the impact of a potential disaster, such as raising a building to make it resistant to flood damage. This assistance has been effective in saving lives, reducing disaster costs, and protecting property since 2000 when the program was initially authorized.

"Through my own discussions with Ohio emergency personnel who responded to 9/11, I know that many of the Ground Zero first responders have experienced a variety of health problems, including respiratory illnesses, pneumonia and asthma. After 9/11, approximately 40,000 personnel, mostly first responders, answered the call. Many continue to face the possibility of long-term health issues," said Voinovich. "Now with nearly 86,000 federal, state, and local personnel and first responders in the Gulf Coast responding to Hurricane Katrina, it's vital that we get this legislation passed."

He added that although the health effects of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are still unknown, "preparation is our best defense. If a horrific event occurs, those who risk their lives to respond must know that their health needs will be taken care of. This legislation will send a message to our first responders that America cares about its heroes."

Clinton noted that when disaster strikes, addressing public health – and the health of first responders – should be at the very top of the priority list, She added, "We have a moral obligation to track the health of first responders – immediately and over time – and provide them with information and assistance in receiving treatment so they can maintain, or regain, their good health."

There are nearly 86,000 response, rescue, recovery and law enforcement personnel currently working around the clock to bring critical aid and support to the Gulf Coast region. On Sept. 17, 2005, the Joint Taskforce Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency released the "Environmental Health Needs and Habitability Assessment." The report identified 13 environmental health issues, including drinking water, wastewater, solid waste and debris, and sediments and soil contamination from toxic chemicals. One of the report's main recommendations is to "maintain a central focus on public safety and recovery worker health and safety throughout the rebuilding of New Orleans."

Last week, EPA released preliminary results of initial sediment sampling from New Orleans and recommended avoiding all contact with the sediment, where possible, due to the presence of E. coli and fuel oils.

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