Most workers and volunteers at Ground Zero have long returned to their old jobs or taken new assignments far from the once-devastated site. But the issue of potential health risks for as many as 30,000 participants, in construction and other sectors, could stay with them. The impact of exposure to site contaminants is only now being felt as worker screening expands, providing new data on collective symptoms and possibly new fuel for litigation.

(Photo by Debra K. Rubin for ENR)

In July, the Center for Occupational & Environmental Medicine at New York City's Mount Sinai Medical Center launched a $12-million effort to screen Ground Zero workers, including those involved at Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, for respiratory, psychological and other conditions. The federally funded effort will cover 8,500 exams, including 1,000 outside New York City, over the next year. Federal and state employees and city firefighters are being screened in other efforts.

The program is only slowly attracting prospects, with 250 screened so far, says Stephen Levin, co-director of the WTC screening program and medical director of the Mount Sinai occupational medicine center. But he notes that asthma-like conditions were already showing up in patients he had checked last fall. "It became clear people inhaled airborne irritants," he says. An earlier screen of 100 ironworkers also revealed "rates of obstructive disease independent of smoking," Levin says. "I was surprised by that."

The lengthy screen, managed by a 60-person staff that includes 8 physicians, covers everything from pulmonary function tests and chest X-rays to psychological screens and detailed medical histories before and after Sept. 11. With few construction workers examined, Levin does not yet have much solid data on exposures. But toxicology tests have revealed varying levels of hydrochloric acid, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and asbestos, he says. Among all types of workers screened so far, two out of three showed symptoms of "respiratory difficulty" and "persistent psychological distress."

HAZY Exposure to airborne substances is being tested in hospital program. (Photo courtesy of FEMA)

Vamadevan Ragumar, a 40-year-old technical manager for Verizon Corp., who survived escape from his office on WTC Tower 2's 9th floor, was screened last month "just to make sure I'm healthy," he says. He had spent 10 minutes in the building's post-collapse cloud of smoke and debris.

Some firms have instituted their own post-Ground Zero medical screening and counseling programs, "but very few people have taken us up," says James Abadie, senior vice president of Bovis Lend Lease. Executives say they know of no worker health-related lawsuits yet.

They may yet happen. Thomas P. Maguire, president of operating engineers Local 15, wrote to members last spring, noting the possibility of claims against agencies and private interests "for breathing problems that have occurred or may occur in the future." The letter includes a questionnaire that seeks information on members' WTC work experience, possible symptoms and treatment. "We're trying to get a complete assessment," says Maguire. "Our members feel fine now. It might be 20 years before we see the residuals."

Expanding the Mount Sinai program is uncertain. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) sought $90 million for extended WTC screening and treatment to be included in a $5.1-billion emergency spending bill that President Bush would not sign. A Clinton spokesman says the funds may be attached to an upcoming federal agency fiscal 2003 spending bill.