9/11 asbestos crews share fear of health coverage running out

Marcos Segura is shown in his Queens apartment.

Marcos Segura is shown in his Queens apartment. Segura worked at the WTC site for three days after the attacks on 9/11 helping with asbestos removal. He now suffers with breathing problems. (Nov. 26, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

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A few days after the Twin Towers fell, Marcos Segura was at Ground Zero -- one of more than 2,300 asbestos workers called in to remove the toxic dust blown into surrounding buildings.

The Queens man put on a protective suit and breathed through a special mask, but it wasn't enough.

Despite their safety gear and training, Segura and other asbestos workers wound up getting exposed to a host of poisons after 9/11. Many have developed health problems, just like less-protected firefighters, police and ironworkers, according to medical surveys.

And while Ground Zero asbestos-removal crews are now at risk of developing mesothelioma and other cancers, there's no guarantee they'll have their future medical bills covered.

Assured by federal officials that the outside air was safe to breathe, Segura, now 61, said he and co-workers removed their masks during meal breaks or when they walked around the ruins of the World Trade Center.

After work, he'd change into street clothes, unaware that they'd become contaminated. Volunteers and restaurants brought in free food, and that, too, turned into a hazard, he said.

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"They gave us food, sandwiches, chicken -- everything in plastic bags, but you had to take it out to eat it. And we even ate it with dirty hands and all," Segura, a native of Ecuador, said through a translator. "We were swallowing dust in a way that scares me."

Dr. Jacqueline Moline of the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine interviewed asbestos workers while helping lead Mount Sinai Hospital's World Trade Center health program. In many cases, she said, workers toiled without proper safety gear, "or were not trained to use it properly."

"Personal protective equipment is good but not perfect," she said.

Segura said he soon developed asthma symptoms. Today, he has severe breathing problems that make sleeping difficult.

"There are moments when I struggle to breathe," said Segura, who lives in Elmhurst with his wife and has two grown daughters. "I get congestion in my throat and nose, and I get a lot of headaches at night."

 

'Forgotten ones'

Another former Ground Zero asbestos worker, Stalin Barcco Wong, 50, of Brooklyn, said asbestos was so thick in the air in the days after 9/11 it was visible to the naked eye.

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"Usually asbestos is encapsulated in something; it's not just in the air," said Wong, also a native Ecuadorean.

Wong, who worked at Ground Zero for two months after 9/11, experienced symptoms that progressed from a rash to internal bleeding. These illnesses, coupled with a back injury, have kept him from working since 2003, he said.

Wong's breathing is now impaired by chronic sinus conditions and his digestion -- like Segura's -- is wracked by acid reflux -- ailments common among first responders.

Far worse, health experts say the asbestos crews face a heightened risk of cancer. Mesothelioma, typically caused by asbestos exposure, could strike long after the free, federally funded WTC health program runs out of money in 2016.

Two years ago, the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund was reactivated to help cover economic losses and out-of-pocket medical expenses incurred by workers, survivors and victims' relatives. But that fund must pay out all of its nearly $2.8 billion by 2017, officials said. After then, it's uncertain whether Congress will renew funding for either program.

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That troubles former asbestos workers, whose medical needs are covered for now.

"We are the most forgotten ones," Segura said. "Those who worked and cleaned there."

"We have to be taken care of, maybe even like the police and firefighters, because we were working and exposed to the contamination just like those who were out to bring order or help people."

 

Dangerous shortcuts

The dangers of asbestos were well-documented long before terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001.

But immediately afterward, a number of federal and state safeguards for cleaning up hazardous materials were waived due to the ongoing state of emergency. Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, backed by civic and business leaders, stressed the imperatives of restarting Wall Street and getting the city back to normal.

During that chaotic time, a union leader said he did his best to protect asbestos workers, but some, under pressure to work swiftly, took safety shortcuts.

"People initially were using asbestos masks, but they got clogged so fast," said Francisco "Paco" Vega, business manager of Heat & Frost Insulators Asbestos Workers Local 12A.

Unlike emergency responders, some asbestos crews spent years working in the area, Vega noted. The longer exposure intensified the health risks.

"If standard procedures had been used rather than suspended or disregarded, many of the workers would have worn personal protective equipment and been otherwise protected from exposure," said Columbia University law professor Michael Gerrard, an environmental law expert.

Interviews with almost 2,000 out of the 2,332 known Ground Zero asbestos workers have revealed that hundreds weren't properly equipped, said Dr. Michael Crane, medical director of the WTC health program at Mount Sinai.

Crane estimates that at least 20 percent either didn't have respirators or didn't wear them in the first few days after 9/11, when the health risks were highest.

Some employers also cut costs by hiring workers who were neither trained nor licensed, as is required, Crane said.

For many asbestos workers, language barriers were another problem.

They were either recent immigrants or undocumented and had limited English language skills, which would have made it difficult to understand safety rules or directions from supervisors. Surveys showed that about half of the asbestos workers spoke Spanish as a first language; another quarter Polish, Crane said.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the lead agency overseeing worker safety at Ground Zero, denies that asbestos workers were ignored.

"OSHA disputes any characterization that it neglected any group of workers, including non-English-speaking workers, during 9/11 recovery operations or at any other time," Edmund Fitzgerald, an OSHA spokesman, said in a statement.

The city's Department of Environmental Protection said the agency has long required asbestos warning signs to be translated into a number of languages, said Chris Gilbride, an agency spokesman. Gilbride said the agency also opened a hotline and set up a Ground Zero help desk, along with other agencies.

 

'Want to stay healthy'

Segura said the combination of sadness and dust that defined Ground Zero were tough to take in the aftermath of the attacks.

He left after a few days, only to return about six months later to clean windows and roofs.

"That dust was still there, and as we worked to clean it, it didn't matter how much water we put on it," he recalled. "You are always lifting the dust and getting splashed and wet with that water."

Segura, who has not been able to work since a 2003 construction accident, worries that his free medical care will end when he needs it most.

"I feel that as days pass I have more trouble breathing," he said. "All of us who worked there . . . we know that we have to die some day, but we want to stay healthy."

With VĂ­ctor Manuel Ramos

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