As the fifth anniversary of 9-11 approaches, the spotlight has finally trained on all the stories about the fallout from the World Trade Center disaster-all the stories about first responders getting sick from the toxic dust, for example. This week’s findings from the Mount Sinai 9-11 study showing that 70 percent of ground zero workers have developed new respiratory illnesses pretty much confirms what activists have long described as a growing health crisis. And that’s just the first responders, of course. Residents, office workers, clean-up workers: These people are suffering from the same litany of symptoms, to little recognition. Today, they seized the spotlight. More than 200 of them gathered across the street from ground zero, in lower Manhattan, where they protested the federal government’s long-standing silence over the health effects of 9-11.
“I’m one of the forgotten victims!” shouted Elaine Guillermo, standing on a makeshift stage, as the 250-strong crowd roared. She launched into a raucous chant-“What do we want? Health care! When do we want it? Now!”-as throngs of people packed themselves into an area cordoned off by police barricades. They held up banners and signs that read “Protect our health compensation now” and “Health care not toxic air.” Some displayed their messages in Chinese, others in Spanish. They listened as speakers, one by one, took to the microphone to demand the same coverage from the federal government that some first responders already receive: medical monitoring and, for those who develop pollution-related diseases, treatment.
“We’re here to demand the rebuilding of New York,” said Stan Mark, of the Beyond Ground Zero network, which organized the protest, “and that has to start with the rebuilding of the lives of residents, office workers, and all who are affected by 9-11.”
The BGZ network, as it’s known, formed in the days and weeks following September 11 by largely poor, immigrant residents and workers in lower Manhattan and Chinatown. Even then, says Yuichi Tamano, of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, one of the groups behind the BGZ network, “We found out that people were sick,” suffering an intractable cough, developing strange skin rashes, battling traumatic stress. Back in May 2002, the network held a town-hall meeting for poor, immigrant residents and workers to demand medical monitoring and treatment for their 9-11-related illnesses. Today, they’re still making the demand.
“We want no more discrimination,” Tamano said, standing before a thicket of TV cameras and microphones. These 9-11 victims are undocumented and uninsured; in short, they are invisible. “We want the government to admit its responsibility,” he added, “and to provide health care to all those affected.”
So does Lucelly Gil, one of thousands of immigrants who cleaned up the downtown skyscrapers after 9-11. Short and squat, Gil, 50, wore a giant, white Manhattan T-shirt over a button down blouse. Speaking in Spanish through an interpreter, she explained that she spent every day, for six straight months, breathing in the toxic dust, without a mask, without gloves, as she wiped down apartments and offices near ground zero. Within months, she began to notice symptoms. Her ears got clogged, she got sinus infections. Eventually, she was diagnosed with pulmonary disorders, attributed to 9-11.
“I helped to clean this area,” Gil said, motioning to the buildings towering above her, “and now I should be helped.” She has no health insurance, and the only care she can get is through a tiny 9-11 screening program for uninsured people in Chinatown and other nearby neighborhoods, at Bellevue Hospital. It treats 500 people, with another 700 on a waiting list. Yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the city would fund $16 million over five years to expand the program-the first government funds earmarked for any treatment for residents, office workers, and clean-up workers. It’s not nearly enough, rally organizers pointed out.
“I am here today because I want the government to know that I helped after 9-11,” Gil observed. “Now, the government should help us.”