Free Mesothelioma Information Packet

Asbestos and 9/11

The day the World Trade Center fell September 11, 2001, most New Yorkers and others around the world weren't thinking about what would be left on the ground and in the air when the fires stopped and the smoke cleared. As caring human beings, most of us were more concerned with the lives lost and families torn apart by this senseless act of terror.

However, when the rescue mission ended and the recovery efforts began, people stopped to ponder just what remained of the two massive towers. While it was commonplace to find millions of pieces of paper, glass, steel, and other tangible items lying around Lower Manhattan, what people weren't "seeing" with their eyes was actually more dangerous than any chunk of steel or broken window pane would ever be.

When the World Trade Center burned and fell, an enormous amount of a variety of toxins were released into the air. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the dust that blanketed Manhattan was composed mainly of "ground up construction materials, including concrete, glass, fiberglass and some asbestos." Others say, however, that the dust also included fiberglass, pulverized concrete, lead, mercury, cadmium, dioxins, and PCB's.

Inhalation of these particles was likely to cause health concerns for everyone in the vicinity, whether a rescue worker or a resident who lived under the ever-present cloud of dust during the weeks it took the fires to burn themselves out. Some health risks would be short term while others could carry effects far into the future.

What about Asbestos?

In the weeks following the World Trade Center attacks, there was plenty of discussion about asbestos. When construction of the towers began in the late 1960s, asbestos warnings and bans were not yet in place. Engineers suggested the use of asbestos material for the first 40 floors of both towers but, anticipating a future ban on the material, the higher floors did not employ the use of asbestos insulation. Still, about 400 tons of asbestos fiber was in the buildings when they collapsed.

Some were quick to say that the lack of asbestos was what caused the buildings to burn and collapse so rapidly. Steve Milloy, a writer for FOX News, went so far as to surmise that "junk science-fueled asbestos hysteria" had been responsible for the death of hundreds of individuals. Some agreed with Milloy. Others adamantly disagreed.

The biggest concern about asbestos, however, was the fear of what it would do to those who inhaled large quantities of fibers in the aftermath of the collapse, especially first responders who may not have been wearing proper protective equipment, such as respirators. (In later days, rescue and recovery workers were encouraged to wear protective gear.)

The Environmental Protection Agency maintains that the level of asbestos found in World Trade Center dust was low. Other federal, state and city agencies, as well as many independent doctors and health experts agree that the risk for disease from asbestos exposure in the community near the World Trade Center site is very low. However, there have already been cases of death due to asbestos-caused diseases.

Those who've studied the potential hazard of asbestos caused by the collapse of the World Trade Center estimate that more than 110,000 people may have suffered serious exposure including 80,000 tower workers, 30,000 local residents, and 4,000 first responders.

As a matter of fact, many first responders suffered almost immediate health problems, developing what officials and doctors dubbed "The World Trade Center Cough". One study showed that more than 85% of those who initially responded to the tragedy were suffering from some sort of respiratory ailment within just months (or even weeks) of the collapse.

Deborah Reeve was the first 9/11 emergency responder to die of mesothelioma. She worked as a paramedic for the Fire Department of New York. Reeve began having symptoms of severe lung disease in early 2003 and was diagnosed with the asbestos-caused cancer in 2004. She succumbed to the disease in March 2006. Doctors agree that her exposure to asbestos was a result of her days spent working at the recovery site.

Deborah's case was also unique in that mesothelioma usually takes decades to develop. In this instance, the disease surfaced in just 3 years, convincing doctors that the amount of asbestos inhaled by Deborah must have been enormous.

Because of cases like Deborah's, doctors continue to encourage those exposed to the toxic dust produced by 9/11 to undergo periodic chest x-rays and lung capacity tests, especially if they are experiencing breathing difficulties, chest pain, or a persistent cough.

More on the World Trade Center, 9/11, and Asbestos

Last modified: December 28, 2010.