Nov 1 2006

Ground Zero’s Undocumented Victims

[Note: This piece is a sidebar to Gullibility Begins at Home.]

On January 11, 2002, the New York Daily News reported that immigrants and labor rights groups charged that hundreds of undocumented workers were hired to clean toxic World Trade Center dust out of buildings near Ground Zero with no training in hazardous waste disposal and no warning of the potential health effects. “Most were not given respirators or other safety equipment,” reported the Daily News’ Albor Ruiz and Greg Gittrich, “and some who brought their own said bosses would snatch them away for themselves.” Some were never even paid for their work, as sometimes happens to undocumented workers with few or no legal protections (Daily News, 1/12/02).

By the beginning of 2002, many were complaining of persistent coughs, lung irritation and other ailments; the paper noted that a mobile medical unit was about to open to offer free exams for such workers. One of the partner organizations of that medical unit, the Queens College Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, ultimately found that of the over 400 workers they examined, almost all had persistent respiratory or other health problems weeks after they’d ceased to work near Ground Zero—symptoms that also included coughing up blood, chest pain, headache, fatigue, dizziness and poor appetite—and “virtually none” had health insurance or a personal physician (Newsday, 4/28/02). Though they are practically impossible to track, the number of affected cleaning workers may in fact reach into the thousands (Newsday, 9/10/06).

The Daily News and fellow New York tabloid Newsday pursued the story for months, publishing several stories each on the mostly Polish and Latino workers’ plight in 2002. Though they fell silent on the story for a time, both picked up the story again in 2005-06 with a handful more stories on the lack of resources and programs for those workers despite the seriousness of their symptoms. And as the Daily News pointed out (9/4/06), undocumented workers aren’t covered by the 2006 New York State laws passed to help cover the costs of providing healthcare to September 11 responders, leaving an unknown number suffering from devastating health problems without health coverage and with only a small patchwork of programs to help them—programs that may never even find those who need them most, because of language barriers and immigrant fears of deportation (Newsday, 9/10/06).

Where was the New York Times during all of this? As of this writing, the Times has failed to publish a single article focusing on the plight of these cleanup workers, according to an extensive FAIR search of the Nexis database. On the same day that the Daily News first ran the cleaning workers story (1/11/02), the Times made a brief three-paragraph mention of the Queens College mobile medical unit, in a larger piece on upcoming studies of the health effects of the September 11 attacks. It was to be the only article the Times published on that study; it never followed up or reported on the results.

The Times’ overall skepticism about the dangers of the dust was made clear in a light-hearted feel-good profile (12/4/01) of Southern Baptists who came to New York “on their own dime” to clean people’s dust-laden apartments, “armed with high-performance vacuum cleaners, mops and cans of Pledge.” The article made no mention of asbestos contamination removal regulations or dangers; the sole acknowledgment that perhaps their selfless work might carry serious risks was voiced by a professional asbestos cleaner, who the Times said “professed” to be worried that apartments the Baptists cleaned might have dangerous levels of asbestos—a framing that cast doubt on his motivations and thus on the seriousness of the asbestos threat.

The Times editorial board evinced some awareness of the health crisis faced by undocumented workers: One editorial (2/22/02) that led off by remarking on the “encouraging findings” on air quality near the Trade Center did note at the end that “the greatest risks may well be faced by immigrant day laborers hired to clean many of the buildings, often without proper instruction or gear.” A September 6, 2006 Times editorial included “illegal immigrant cleaners” in its call for a national plan to treat those with health problems stemming from the attacks. Times columnist Paul Krugman (8/26/03) also mentioned that “hundreds of cleaning workers and thousands of residents may be suffering chronic health problems.”

But it’s highly unlikely that the minimal awareness on the editorial pages came from reading the Times’ news sections. Two other Times articles (4/6/02, 6/5/06) made even briefer mention of the workers; none included an explanation of the regulations regarding indoor asbestos cleanup, the city or federal government responsibilities, or the responsibilities of the contractors who hired the workers.

Though it took them five years, even two of the Times’ geographically distant national competitors featured articles on the health and insurance problems afflicting undocumented cleanup workers. It’s hard to say the Washington Post’s article (10/8/06) was much of an improvement over the Times’ silence, since it took the concept of “balance” to an absurd level, framing the issue as one that has “partisans on both sides cast[ing] their plight in moral terms,” quoting a former INS agent and a representative from the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies who both argued that undocumented workers who fell ill from their work at Ground Zero should nonetheless be sent back to their countries of origin.

But the Los Angeles Times(10/14/06) put the issue on its front page in a serious examination of the impact on workers’ lives; reporter Ellen Barry made clear that the city’s Department of Environmental Protection was charged with overseeing asbestos-laden debris removal, but that the system was “informally abandoned” after September 11, leaving no city or federal guidance or enforcement of rules. It’s a shame the city’s own “paper of record” couldn’t do the same simple journalism.