The smoke and dust rising from the wreckage of the World Trade Center (WTC) site for months following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, remain seared in most Americans' minds. The toxic materials in that foul atmosphere left many people with much worse than sad and troubling memories. Epidemiological studies conducted since that tragic day show that rates of cancer, asthma and other lung diseases, chronicfatigue, post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological disorders, and gastrointestinal illnesses are much higher among the people who answered the call to literally pick up the pieces after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
That medical evidence has played key roles in allowing emergency responders and recovery personnel receive compensation for physical and mental harms their essential work inflicted. The most recent instance of this came in early June 2015, when 82 World Trade Center cleanup crew members reached a settlement with more than 340 business owners and employers over claims that worksite risks were covered up and safety equipment was not issued. As reported by Reuters, the defendants in the work-related illness lawsuit "disputed that dust was dangerous" even while knowing that the air was suffused with asbestos particles, toxic fumes and lead.
A majority of the plaintiffs have become disabled and unable to work. The average payout from the $83 million settlement of $656,119 may seem like a lot, but some of the sick workers received far less. Also, the funds must be used to pay a majority of living expenses for the rest of the recipients' lifetimes, as well as to procure ever more expensive medical care.
Several similar lawsuits brought by ill and injured 9/11 workers have reached settlements. Each became necessary because the companies and government agencies named as defendants put employees and contractors at risk, then denied responsibility for doing so. As a Virginia personal injury and wrongful death attorney who has helped many railroad workers hold their former employers accountable for failing to protect them from asbestos dust and diesel fumes, I have seen that maddening cycle play out too many times.
I also know that strong medical evidence, like that presented, in part, by epidemiologist and toxicity expert Dr. David F. Goldsmith in the just-concluded WTC cleanup case, is essential to securing justice (get more info here: www.OccupationalEpi.com). A favorite legal tactic of railroads, shipyard companies and builders is to claim that actions and lifestyle choices of plaintiffs caused disabling and deadly illnesses much more than anything that occurred on the job. In one case against freight railroad CSX, I found myself having to counter the unbelievable argument that regular and repeated exposures to plutonium, uranium and asbestos did nothing to harm my client. Decades of health statistics from peer-reviewed epidemiology articles were offered to rebut the railroad's assertion that the occupational exposures were not relevant.
It is good to learn that individuals who developed diseases after cleaning up the WTC site are receiving compensation. It would be better to know that their health had never been put in danger.