On the morning of September 11, 2001, Americans were gripped by the scenes unfolding in New York on television, the radio, and right in front of them. In the hours, days and weeks following the collapse of the World Trade Center (WTC) towers, thousands of first responders rushed to the scene in lower Manhattan in a desperate attempt to save as many lives as possible.
More than 2,600 people died during the initial attacks, including about 400 New York City firefighters, police officers and Port Authority personnel. First responders and other volunteers helped evacuate people to safety. Unfortunately, most of those first responders and rescue workers were without proper personal protective equipment (PPE), and many of the people fleeing the area around the buildings were covered in a layer of toxic dust from the collapsed buildings.
Seventeen years later, experts fear the number of people dying from illnesses associated with 9/11, including malignant mesothelioma, will soon eclipse those who perished in the terrorist attack.
A Toxic Combination of Chemicals
According to a 2006 report from the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, the dust emanating from the site contained a cocktail of dangerous chemicals, heavy elements and other sediments capable of causing health concerns. Among the contaminants were mainly particles of construction debris, such as concrete, gypsum and glass, along with smaller amounts of cellulose, benzene, mercury, and asbestos.
When the twin towers fell, the pressure and weight of the buildings themselves crushed the concrete and other materials used to construct the building into dust, covering several city blocks. Closer to Ground Zero, people remembered seeing several inches of dust in the street. All told, 1.8 million tons of debris was removed from Ground Zero over the course of eight months.
In the years since, the results have been catastrophic for those heavily exposed to the toxic air at the site following the buildings’ collapse. According to recent reports, close to 10,000 first responders and survivors have been diagnosed with cancer since 2001. More than 2,000 have already succumbed to an illness associated with exposure to the toxic conditions.
People May Not Know They’re At Risk
Asbestos products were used during the early part of the construction of the World Trade Center’s north tower, and the National Resources Defense Council estimates that about 300 to 400 tons of the toxic mineral was included in the project as a fireproofing material. When the World Trade Center towers fell, asbestos fibers were found in the airborne dust that people inhaled and carried home with them on their clothes each day after leaving the site.
Due to the lack of proper PPE and other respiratory protection on the day of the incident, many people breathed in toxic dust and as a result became at risk of developing a variety of conditions, including asthma, lung cancer and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
Experts suggest there were about 400,000 people in the area when 9/11 occurred, possibly putting all of them at risk of breathing in toxic asbestos fibers. The mineral has long been linked to a wide array of adverse health effects, ranging from pleural mesothelioma to asbestos-related lung cancer and asbestosis. Unfortunately, diseases connected to asbestos exposure also have long latency periods, and diagnoses can often occur decades after initial exposure has taken place.
More Claims Coming
Due to the delayed onset of symptoms, it’s largely expected that the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund (VCF) will see more mesothelioma claims in the coming years, especially from first responders and those who participated in the months-long clean-up process at Ground Zero.
According to statistics released by the VCF in August 2018, nearly 21,000 claimants have been deemed eligible for compensation and the program has paid out $4.27 billion in awards. The vast majority of those funds ($3.48 billion) have been awarded to New York City responders, while non-responders working in the exposure zone near Ground Zero in Manhattan have received the second-largest payout, listed at $522 million, so far. Under the current VCF, claims will be accepted until December 18, 2020.
First responders and residents from NYC, Washington DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, are also encouraged to apply for the World Trade Center Health Program. The program is paid for through the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act and provides members with free mental and medical services for certified health conditions associated with the terrorist attack.