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Some NYC workers paying toll years after 9/11 cleanup

Money problems, failing health seen

NEW YORK -- There is no voice left in Manuel Checo's voice. He speaks in a granular rasp that fades, occasionally, to whispery puffs of air. Sometimes, for periods as long as two days, he is unable to speak at all.

When that happens, Checo carries a pad of paper so he can scribble notes if he needs something. But for the most part, he will disappear into his rented room, ignoring his cellphone when it rings.

Checo, a janitor, spent six months cleaning dust from office buildings around ground zero after the World Trade Center collapsed in the Sept. 11 attacks. Five years later, the lining of his lungs is pocked with scars and densities that do not belong there -- possibly a sign of a disease that can cause lung tissue to become so stiff that it can no longer carry oxygen, wrote a radiologist who examined a scan of his lungs last year.

The son of a general in the Dominican Republic, Checo, 54, irons his shirts with military precision. When he meets a woman on the street, he kisses her hand. But when he discovered that he was too weak to work again, his life veered terribly off course.

He was evicted from his apartment and slept in his car for six months. Acquaintances didn't understand his racking cough .

The dust around ground zero, it is now known, contained caustic, finely pulverized concrete, trillions of microscopic fibers of glass, particles of lead, mercury, and arsenic, and carcinogens such as asbestos and dioxin. Five years out, the "World Trade Center cough" has started to look like a persistent -- and, in some cases, disabling -- respiratory condition.

Symptoms are being described by an ever-growing number of New Yorkers coming forward : the first responders who plunged into the tangled wreckage to find survivors, the volunteers who hauled diesel fuel and doled out cigarettes, and the students at Stuyvesant High School who returned to school while acrid fires burned nearby.

Less visible is the army of workers sent to the area to clean office buildings. Those were the cases that shocked Scottie Hill, a social worker, when the Mount Sinai Medical Center opened its World Trade Center health clinic in 2002. The cleaners, mostly immigrants, were living close to the edge when the job began; by the following year, many were in crisis because of lost wages and poor health.

Three-quarters of them lacked health insurance. Hill frequently saw clients who were facing eviction or had lost their homes. Some couldn't afford the $4 it cost to ride the subway to the clinic and back.

The city's Department of Environmental Protection generally oversees the removal of debris containing asbestos, but that system was informally abandoned after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to David Newman, an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a coalition of union leaders and safety activists.

Landlords got no guidance from state or federal agencies, leaving them "free, if you will, to do whatever they wanted, or to do nothing," Newman said.

Checo and Alex Sanchez, a fellow Dominican 15 years Checo's junior , wore paper masks that covered their noses and mouths when they were available -- about 30 percent of the time, Sanchez said. But the dust permeated everything; a T-shirt that was white at the beginning of a shift would be gray by the end.

Soon after the first anniversary of Sept. 11, Checo called Sanchez with exciting news: He had been watching a Spanish-language news show when Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared, urging ground zero workers to go for screening at the Mount Sinai Medical Center's new clinic.

The day they went in for appointments, everything changed. Checo was diagnosed with rhinitis, sinusitis, asthma, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, delusional disorder, and schizophrenia, paranoid type. Sanchez was diagnosed with asthma, sinusitis, gastroesophageal reflux, various musculoskeletal injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Each now takes fistfuls of medications.

Both men are among 75 plaintiffs who have filed a $30 million lawsuit against the owners of dozens of office towers in lower Manhattan.

That case is not likely to go to trial for at least two years, their lawyer, Robert Grochow, said.

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