MONDAY, Sept. 13, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Nearly three years to the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, lawyers for more than 800 "Ground Zero" rescue and clean-up workers announced Monday a billion-dollar class-action lawsuit against owners of the World Trade Center for exposing the workers to allegedly toxic conditions.
David E. Worby, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the class action could potentially encompass hundreds of thousands of individuals, all of whom lived or worked at or near the site in the weeks and months following the Twin Towers' collapse.
"More people, unfortunately, will probably die from post-9/11 toxic problems than died on 9/11," Worby told reporters at a press conference held a block away from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. "These are our new class of World Trade Center victims that need our new rescue and recovery efforts."
The suit against Silverstein Properties and more than a dozen other stakeholders in the World Trade Center property was formally filed on Sept. 10 and seeks more than $1 billion in damages to set up a special "medical testing fund" for what Worby described as "toxic exposures."
The suit also seeks an unspecified amount in "compensatory damages," he added.
In a response to the lawsuit, Silverstein spokesman Howard J. Rubenstein said, "The rescue, recovery and cleanup of the World Trade Center site was conducted completely under the auspices and control of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the City of New York. We had no control over that operation and no ability to supervise what safety precautions were taken."
Worby said further claims are planned against New York City, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
Toxicologist William R. Sawyer, working on behalf of the plaintiffs, conducted assessments of contaminant levels in numerous WTC rescue and clean-up workers.
He described Ground Zero in the weeks after the attacks as "a giant toxic waste site containing all of the necessary ingredients that, when heated, or 'pyrolized,' made a smoldering, 100-foot-plus pile of toxic material which generated unprecedented concentrations of carcinogens."
Contained in this "toxic waste pile," according to Sawyer and Worby, were:
- 200,000 pounds of lead from the estimated 50,000 personal computers in thousands of World Trade Center offices
- mercury contained in the towers' more than half a million fluorescent lights
- dioxin from oil and fuel
- 2,000 tons of asbestos
- benzene from more than 91,000 liters of burned jet fuel
- cadmium, PCBs, and up to 2 million pounds of toxins known as polycystic aromatic hydrocarbons.
All of these contaminants have strong links to pulmonary, skin or immune system ailments, as well as cancer, Sawyer said. He predicted that long-term cancer rates among clean-up workers could rise to five to seven times the norm during the coming decades.
Under OSHA rules, Worby said, building management is required to carry out expert assessments of air and environmental safety before sending workers into any site deemed at risk. The lawyers representing the workers said there was an "unnecessary rush" on behalf of the owners and various government officials to send poorly protected workers to Ground Zero.
"There was only one important thing to do after there was no more rescue of human lives at that site," Worby said, "and that was [to protect] the lives of everyone else, the health, safety and general welfare of our police, our firemen. We let them down."
Worby charged that most rescue and cleanup workers at Ground Zero were not given protective gear, or were given gear of dubious or defective quality.
He also charged that the EPA "should've known from Day One what they were looking at [at Ground Zero]." Instead, he said, agency officials approved "this rush to clean up the worst toxic site in our history -- with no one having proper protection."
A dozen plaintiffs sat in on the press conference, among them New York City Police Detective John Walcott, who worked for months at the Trade Center site and the Staten Island Fresh Kills Landfill, which was the ultimate destination for most of the Ground Zero debris.
Walcott has since been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, and has undergone chemotherapy and a failed stem cell transplant, he said. Although his immune system has improved, Wolcott said he now lives his life "by the hour."
He said the lawsuit was primarily designed to protect others, through funding a decades-long medical testing initiative that might catch toxin-related illnesses early.
"What happened to me happened so quickly," he said, "and we want to avoid that happening to anyone else."
Also in attendance was Eva Lanvoy, who said she cleaned debris from elevators at 1 Liberty Plaza for two weeks after the attacks. Lanvoy said she now suffers from a host of conditions, including asthma and chronic gastritis. She lifted her arms to display blotchy discolorations of skin, which her lawyers said occur "all over her body."
Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study showing that many Ground Zero recovery workers suffered from respiratory problems long after the cleanup ended. Some still struggle with problems that include asthma, sinusitis, constant coughing, facial pains, chest tightness, wheezing and shortness of breath, the Associated Press reported.
For more on the health consequences of the Twin Towers' collapse, visit the National Institutes of Health.