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Lawsuits planned by firefighters

| Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2002

NEW YORK - More than 1,300 people, mostly firefighters who toiled in the smoldering rubble of the twin towers, have notified New York City they may sue for damages stemming from the attack on the World Trade Center.

The claims, a necessary first step before lawsuits can be filed against the city, alleged that the firefighters and other workers were exposed after Sept. 11 to ''dangerous levels'' of toxins, PCBs, benzine, lead, chromium, copper, asbestos, sulfur dioxide, fiberglass and other toxic and carcinogenic chemicals.

The exposure was the result of ''negligence, carelessness and recklessness,'' in not providing rescue workers with proper protective gear, including respirators and other breathing apparatus, the legal papers charged.

Many of the firefighters said in the claims that they suffered from cardiopulmonary and respiratory injuries including constant cough, burning lungs, trouble swallowing and other injuries, whose full extent are still unknown.

In October, the fire department arranged for a group of firefighters to undergo specialized breathing tests at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. Physicians found that 25 percent had airway irritation.

The percentage remained the same when the tests were repeated in November and December.

Approximately two-thirds of the firefighters with positive results in October continued to show irritation. In addition, 13 percent of those who tested normal in October showed irritation, according to the study.

''The continued presence of airway irritation in a sizable number of participants on this repeat test raises the question of whether this irritation will persist for longer time periods,'' Dr. David Prezant, the fire department's pulmonary expert, wrote in a letter to the firefighters who took part in the study. ''If the hyper-reactivity persists for longer time periods, this may represent irritant asthma.

''Without further evaluation, it is impossible to predict whether airway irritation will resolve in persons currently experiencing it,'' he added.

The department is planning additional tests in March.

The possibility of lawsuits concerned former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and New York Gov. George Pataki. Both officials wrote to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, in the fall seeking a congressional cap on the city's liability from recovery work at the trade center site.

The airline security bill passed by Congress granted their request. It set a liability limit of $350 million the city must pay.

''We are not suing about Sept. 11. We are suing about the month that followed,'' said Jim McGarry, a principal partner in a Manhattan law firm representing many of the firefighters. ''During that time, the city of New York and other agencies at Ground Zero failed to provide proper respirators.''

Fire officials admit a shortage of respirators existed after the twin towers collapsed.

''We had them in limited supply at the time of the attack,'' said Frank Gribbon, a fire department spokesman. ''As the days wore on, we ordered them, and we had them delivered. We do acknowledge initially they weren't available.''

Gribbon said some workers decided not to wear the respirators or put them on intermittently.

More than 9,000 firefighters had comprehensive medical examinations since the attack, he said, with ''no significant elevations'' of lead, beryllium, mercury and other metals reported.

The department spokesman said one in four of those examined ''had a respiratory issue, from a mild cough or irritation to more severe issues, in the extreme, resulting in reduced lung capacity.''

The majority returned to work full time in firehouses, Gribbon said.

''We have a couple of hundred people out on medical leave or on restricted duty,'' he added.

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