Five years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the destruction of the World Trade Center is still claiming victims. Huge numbers of the thousands of rescue and recovery workers who gave their time, skills, and strength at Ground Zero in the days, weeks, and months that followed the attacks have since developed serious respiratory health problems. A Mount Sinai Medical Center study released just last week shows that 70 percent of Ground Zero workers exposed to the site's toxic dust and debris have developed new or worsened illnesses since 2001.
This alarming study highlights the still-urgent need for congressional investigations into the safety and health of Ground Zero workers and first responders in general. Yet the Republican leadership of the House Education and Workforce Committee, the committee with primary jurisdiction over worker safety issues, has refused to hold even a single hearing on this issue, despite repeated requests for hearings by Democrats on the committee. It is beyond shameful that Republican leaders on our committee have not devoted any time to the severe health problems afflicting Ground Zero workers, especially since our committee has not had hearings scheduled on more than 70 percent of the days that Congress was in session over the past three years.
Other lawmakers have recognized the gravity of this issue. In fact, a House Government Reform subcommittee held a field hearing on Ground Zero workers' health on Friday. However, without the attention of the proper committee with oversight and expertise on worker safety issues, many critical questions remain unanswered. It is long past time for the Education and the Workforce Committee to hold hearings.
As the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina continues to remind us, first responders, relief workers, and volunteers play key roles in times of emergency, whether terrorist attacks or natural disasters. We rely on these courageous workers to save lives and rebuild communities. In turn, they must be able to count on their government to minimize the risks they face while on the job. Ensuring their health and safety - a matter of national security - should be one of Congress' highest priorities.