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Ground zero workers in poor health

/ Source: The Associated Press

Most ground zero workers still suffer from health problems two years after Sept. 11 and many do not have health insurance or job security, doctors told a congressional panel Tuesday.

Several of the workers testified at a Manhattan hospital before the committee, saying they had trouble breathing, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and no longer had the strength to do their old jobs.

“I can’t tell you how hard it is living like this,” said David Rapp, a construction worker who spent five months at the World Trade Center site and now always carries an oxygen tank and uses three inhalers. “The fear of not being able to take my next breath is unbearable.”

John Graham, a carpenter and emergency services worker who spent three days a week at the site for several months, said he has asthma and is sometimes too sick to work.

“I’m a chronically ill man who’s anxious about my ability to support my family,” he said.

Robin Herbert and Stephen Levin, the co-directors of a federal screening program at Mount Sinai Medical Center for ground zero workers, said they had examined 8,000 workers, 75 percent of whom had persistent respiratory problems. Forty percent of the workers suffer from mental health problems after the 2001 terror attack, the doctors said, but 40 percent also do not have health insurance and one-third are unemployed.

The doctors said the program had only enough funding — $56 million of $90 million allocated last year — to continue to screen and monitor the workers for five years.

Herbert and Levin, who said the workers are at risk for developing cancer in the next decade, sought funding to screen more than 10,000 workers a year for the next 20 years.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., the chairman of the Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations, questioned why more people hadn’t been examined and why some government agencies hadn’t coordinated their information.

Lawmakers also questioned federal officials about how much they knew about the health risks at ground zero in the days after the attack and about how many workers were told of the danger.

OSHA regional administrator Patricia Clark said that the agency distributed 131,000 respirators after the attack but that many workers didn’t wear them because they found them uncomfortable or thought they were unnecessary.

Clark said OSHA inspectors strongly urged workers to keep their respirators on.

“Clearly they did not wear them all the time,” Clark said. “That’s very unfortunate, and I regret that very much.”