Mobile Health Clinic Tests Cleanup Workers at WTC

Jan. 15, 2002
Cleaning crew workers, fearing their health has been compromised\r\nby their work near the World Trade Center site, line up outside a mobile health clinic at the corner of Broadway and Barclay Street .

Cleaning crew workers, fearing their health has been compromised by their work near the World Trade Center site, lined up outside a mobile health clinic at the corner of Broadway and Barclay Street yesterday.

Braving cold temperatures, the mostly immigrant workers began lining up before the doors of the clinic opened, with some 50 additional workers already scheduled for check-ups. The workers are complaining of a variety of health problems, including trouble breathing, chronic coughs, nosebleeds and chest pains.

Most of the workers were hired as day laborers to perform jobs such as cleaning up asbestos. Many claim they were given no training, were not told of hazards, and were not offered any type of respiratory protection or protective clothing.

"Many day laborers are Spanish-speaking immigrants with little health and safety training," says Joel Shufro, director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). "The medical unit goes straight to the problem area, offering the basic medical and educational resources the clean-up crews need."

The unit will be open on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. until Feb. 1, serving eligible participants by appointment. In addition to a free physical exam, medical and occupational histories, breathing test, urinalysis, complete blood count and blood chemistry panel, participants will also receive education, respirator fit-testing and a free half-mask respirator with HEPA filters. NYCOSH, along with the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College-City University of New York and the Latin American Workers'' Project, sponsored the mobile medical unit.

"We are aiming to help the most neglected, least-protected workers, who might otherwise receive no medical care for occupational health problems. As they cleaned, they stirred up and inhaled injurious dusts. We want to identify their illnesses and provide them with properly fitting respirators to protect themselves in the future," said Steven Markowitz, MD, an occupational medicine physician who is directing the medical team from the City University of New York.

It is estimated that there are 400 or more workers involved in cleanup operations in buildings around the World Trade Center site. The mobile unit was set up primarily to care for nonunion workers who do not have health insurance and who could be working without proper precautions - such as respirators - or training.

"The people who hired us told us nothing about the hazards we night be facing," said Alsivar Naranjo, who says he''s suffering from a chronic cough stemming from his work at One Liberty Plaza, a few blocks from Ground Zero.

"Now I want to know if my body is contaminated," he added as he waited in line.

Darwin Maldonado, also waiting in line for his turn to see a doctor, said that while he was given a respirator by his employer, he knows of other workers who were not offered any training or respiratory protection. Those employers might find themselves in trouble with the Occupational Safety and Health Admininstration (OSHA).

The OSHA standard that regulates asbestos for general industry, 29 CFR 1001, states: "Employers and building and facility owners shall exercise due diligence" concerning any material that could contain asbestos. According to OSHA, to exercise due diligence an employer must take "actions that a reasonable employer would take in a given situation." OSHA also says that a reasonable employer "is responsible for investigating" the asbestos content of any material that the employer "may know of, or suspect" as containing asbestos.

Although the New York City Department of Health is advising people that there is no restriction on cleaning the material up before testing it, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) advises all employers to act as if WTC dust contains asbestos, because "three-quarters of EPA samples of WTC dust contain asbestos," according to a NYCOSH fact sheet.

If an employer does not test dust that is likely to contain asbestos and the dust is disturbed, "OSHA may find the employer to have violated the law," adds a warning from NYCOSH.

If dust is tested and found to contain more than one percent asbestos, the employer must file an Asbestos Inspection Report or a Emergency Asbestos Project Notification with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) Asbestos Control Program. Also, if the dust is more than one percent asbestos, the employer must hire a licensed asbestos abatement contractor to conduct the clean-up, according to New York state law.

Asbestos is not the only concern at Ground Zero and the surrounding area. Monitoring by the Environmental Protection Agency and others has turned up lead, silica, benzene, dioxin, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Although government agencies say the levels are well below those mandated by federal regulations, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday that some companies hired by building owners and residents in areas near Ground Zero to conduct monitoring have turned up much higher levels of asbestos and other contaminants than those reported by EPA.

Workers who suspect they are being told to work in hazardous conditions - such as those containing high levels of asbestos - can call OSHA at 1-800-321-OSHA to file a complaint by telephone. NYCOSH recommends that anyone filing an OSHA complaint about untested WTC dust refer specifically to the "due diligence" clause of the OSHA Asbestos Standard for General Industry. If anyone - employee, area resident, etc. - believes that a contractor is cleaning up untested WTC dust that contains asbestos, they can file a complaint with the NYCDEP 24-hour Complaint Hotline at (718) 337-4357.

by Sandy Smith

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