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Daily News

Enough studies: We need action

EDITORIAL

In reporting that the health crisis afflicting Ground Zero rescue and recovery workers is deeper and more persistent than even they had recognized, doctors at Mount Sinai Medical Center yesterday put a rapier-fine point on the urgent need for aggressive action.

By Mount Sinai's count, almost 70% of the workers suffered respiratory symptoms during or after their time at Ground Zero, and more than 60% remained ill long after. Those numbers, higher than previous estimates, certify that thousands of men and women who served at the site of the destroyed World Trade Center are sick because they did their duty.

The findings produced by the Mount Sinai World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program also stand as an indictment of five years of government inattention and continuing, inexcusable inaction. For even now, no one - federal, state or city - is stepping forward to lead the broad public-health campaign that is so obviously necessary.

Mayor Bloomberg may someday take full command, but yesterday he unveiled programs that were largely focused on defining the scope of an epidemic that should no longer need any definition. That he did so without having a grasp of the Mount Sinai findings - and without coordination with Mount Sinai's doctors - spoke volumes about how disjointed New York's 9/11 health programs remain. And that the mayor left an impression - wrong, his aides say - that he wasn't sure there was a provable connection between Ground Zero exposures and respiratory diseases was mind-boggling.

With his administration far behind the curve, Bloomberg dispatched two deputy mayors to survey how his agencies are responding to Ground Zero health issues and - take a deep, deep breath - to "review the availability and sufficiency of resources aimed at assisting those who have been affected by WTC-related illness, and recommend strategies to ensure the ongoing adequacy of those resources."

The mayor gave his aides three months to report back. Perhaps he will then be in a position to attack this "health crisis on all fronts," as we have urged, and to "galvanize the federal government into supporting long-term monitoring and treatment programs."

Bloomberg also said he would devote $22 million to a Health Department unit that would monitor the WTC epidemic and keep everyone abreast of developments. Perhaps this will become the information "clearinghouse" that we have called for, and perhaps the department will finally awaken to its obligations.

Finally, the mayor said the city would spend $16 million on a Bellevue Hospital clinic that will treat a range of people who were exposed to Trade Center dust, from residents and undocumented workers who cleaned up surrounding buildings to city employees who participated in debris removal. There is a need for this service, and programs for 9/11 responders are in dire need of similar financial aid.

On that front, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt, is to meet tomorrow with the city's congressional delegation and mayoral aides. Oh, how we wish we could participate, if only to point out that this emperor is buck naked.

Leavitt is the official who named Dr. John Howard, head of National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, to "coordinate" the federal response to 9/11 health problems without giving Howard a penny of budget or a smidgen of power. What Howard has instead is guts. He spoke the truth about Washington's paltry support for treatment programs, telling The New York Times, "You don't have to go to cancers years from now, or asbestosis, to be able to say, ‘Gee, John, how far do you think this money is going to go?' I don't think it will go that far."

No one sees the need for treatment funding more clearly than Dr. Robin Herbert, director of the Mount Sinai 9/11 program, which has treated thousands of responders who suffer with damaged lungs. Nearly half are uninsured, and Herbert fears that even more serious illnesses are looming.

"There should no longer be any doubt about the health effects of the World Trade Center," she said. "Our patients are sick. Our patients were very, very highly exposed, and are likely to suffer health consequences as a result of that for the rest of their lives." That's all any official should need. The forgotten victims of 9/11 critically need help.

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