Dr. Clinton Versus the Ground Zero Cough


Joseph Lebretti and David O’Neal discovered that they lived on the same Pennsylvania country road while working the night shift together in the fall of 2001, digging through the wreckage at Ground Zero. Their lives ran parallel courses for three months with Lebretti, a Local 580 ironworker, and O’Neal, a day laborer in Local 79, consumed by the toxic life of the pile.

Since then, both men have been diagnosed with chronic lung disease. O’Neal is on the waiting list at Mount Sinai Medical Center for a lung transplant. Lebretti has visited the occupational safety specialists at Mount Sinai more than 30 times. He was first sent to the East Harlem clinic by his union, which encouraged its members to be examined there as patients of the World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program. He got a four-hour exam, consisting of an exposure interview, a psychological examination, and a comprehensive physical exam including a full chest X-ray, breathing tests, and a bronchodilator. He was luckier than O’Neal—diagnosed with an upper-respiratory infection, chronic lung disease, sleep apnea, and metal in his blood. Scottie Hill, Mount Sinai’s social worker, also convinced him to join the program’s group therapy sessions for post-traumatic stress disorder. “The folks up there made all the difference,” says Lebretti.

Drs. Stephen Levin and Robin Herbert, who run the screening program, help workers like Lebretti and O’Neal every day. They see ironworkers, transit-union workers, EMTs, carpenters, and more. The FDNY has its own Clinton-initiated $25 million screening program, but most other workers, and even volunteers, who labored at Ground Zero may sign up for screening—an estimated 30,000 people.

More than 9,200 World Trade Center responders have entered the program since it received a $12 million FEMA grant two years ago. Part of a second $90 million package is arriving at Mount Sinai this fall, including $21 million for screenings and $16 million for a comprehensive data analysis of five years of results.

Mount Sinai, in a preliminary analysis, found that more than half of those screened—first responders at the WTC or the Staten Island landfill who reported within three days after 9-11 and spent more than a week there—were diagnosable for a mental health problem. Eighty-eight percent experienced at least one World Trade Center-related ear, nose, or throat symptom, and half sustained upper-respiratory symptoms for months. When the screening program ends in September, Mount Sinai staff will have evaluations from nearly 12,000 laborers, and will be able to calculate the percentage that have symptoms or illnesses three years later.

Patients like O’Neal and Lebretti thank the doctors. Who do the doctors thank? Who do the unions thank? Hillary Clinton. She’s won the more than $100 million that runs the network of New York-area responder screenings Mount Sinai leads. The aid originated in two Clinton-drafted appropriations amendments, the first ($12.4 million) of which breezed through Congress in a post-9-11 aid package. The second $90 million, however, took eight months to pass before overcoming a threatened Bush veto. In January 2003, with partisan tension over the stalled funding rising to a tipping point, Clinton ally Carolyn Maloney, the Eastside congresswoman, filled congressional guest seats for Bush’s State of the Union speech with NYPD detectives, transit workers, firefighters, and others, even winning over New York Republicans for the funding. They got Bush to sign off on the appropriation within weeks.

Police detectives treated at Mount Sinai such as Cecil Martinez are so appreciative they recently got their union, the Detectives Endowment Association, to organize a huge thank-you party for clinic staff. At the March ceremony, DEA president Tom Scotto gave the union’s highest award for service to Clinton. Martinez says, “She’s been at the point of all this, I mean, I can say that this program wouldn’t be here for the workers without her fighting for it.”

The funding will run out in five years. Dr. Levin, one of the occupational-health co-directors at Mount Sinai, says that’s problematic, because symptoms aren’t easing up, and “this population has been exposed to a real brew of cancer-causing agents” that could take 15 to 20 years to affect exposed workers. He expects Clinton to follow up next year and secure a future revenue stream. Martinez is betting on it.