Two members of Congress who represent New York City called on the federal government to appoint a health czar to oversee treatment and testing for workers and residents suffering from the lingering effects of the destruction of the World Trade Center.
There is no one responsible for the monitoring and treatment "of thousands of people who have been affected adversely" by the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, said Congressman Vito Fossella, who joined Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and ground zero recovery workers at the trade center site on Wednesday.
"The 9/11 health czar would be directly responsible and accountable for the full range of the federal government's response," he said.
Maloney, a Manhattan Democrat, and Fossella, a Staten Island Republican, said thousands of ground zero workers are still sick more than four years after the terrorist attack.
"They worked on this pile behind us, and they were exposed to a cocktail of poisonous gases, toxins, pulverized cement and glass, and these particles are still in their bodies, still in their lungs and many of them are becoming sick," Maloney said.
They cited the recent deaths of three trade center recovery workers, police Detective James Zadroga and emergency medical technicians Timothy Keller and Felix Hernandez, as evidence of an ongoing crisis.
"Their deaths should be a clarion call to the entire Congress and the entire country to once and for all put somebody in charge to help those who need our help," Fossella said.
In a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt signed by a bipartisan group of Congress members, they called the deaths "an ominous sign" and demanded to know the Bush administration's plan for long-term monitoring and treatment of ground zero respondents and area residents.
A spokesman for HHS did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment Wednesday.
Keller, who was 41, died on June 23 of heart disease complicated by bronchitis and emphysema, the Nassau County medical examiner's office said.
Keller's 19-year-old son, David Keller, said his father "shouldn't have died."
"He was absolutely perfectly healthy before 9/11 and after that, it just went downhill," he said.
Hernandez, 31, died Oct. 23 of respiratory ailments, and Zadroga, 34, died Jan. 5. Family members and co-workers said he had contracted black lung disease and had high levels of mercury in his brain. Results of an autopsy aren't available yet.
Last September, hundreds of people who worked on the World Trade Center cleanup filed a class-action lawsuit? against the leaseholder of the towers and those who supervised the job, alleging they did little to protect workers from dust, asbestos and other toxins in the air.
The lawsuit alleges that many workers did not have access to protective gear, and those who did were not taught how to wear it properly.
Filed in federal court, the lawsuit was brought against Silverstein Properties and the four construction companies hired to oversee the removal of the 1.5 million tons of debris.
While some of the plaintiffs suffer from afflictions ranging from tumors to heartburn, many say they show no symptoms from their work at the site, but have joined the suit because they fear they risk developing cancer in the future.
© 2006 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.