The events of September 11, 2001 shocked not only those of us in the United States, but many throughout the world as well. But as it turns out, the immediate loss of lives and destruction of valuable properties were just a tip of the iceberg. Many adverse effects started to emerge months, even years later, and it is only fifteen years after the fact that we are truly beginning to fully understand what happened.
One of those effects took the form of a deadly carcinogen that spread across New York City in the wake of the destruction. That carcinogen was asbestos, a substance that was used in the construction of the Twin Towers from 1968 through 1972. Although New York City banned the cement-and-asbestos slurry used during the Twin Towers construction in 1971, close to 400 tons of asbestos had already been added to the buildings during the first few years of development.
When the structural rigidity of the buildings were compromised, causing them to collapse, the force of impact was enormous. As a result, the weight of the towers crushed the asbestos-laden cement within the buildings into airborne particles almost instantaneously. The deadly dust spread throughout Manhattan and even into the rest of the city.
Following the dispersion of particles, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency set up twelve stationary air-reading stations to monitor air quality. According to their report, 34 dust samples out of 128 tested positive for asbestos. Since the asbestos was crushed and pulverized, it was easily propagated by the wind from one location to another. At the scene, close to 4% of the dust was composed of asbestos particles.
The spread of asbestos fibers was fueled by the wind, people, and vehicles that had been contaminated. The emergency responders– which was comprised of firefighters, health workers, police and public workers – were exposed to the asbestos fibers, and likely even helped spread asbestos even further afield. Approximately 40,000 rescue workers accessed the scene, exposing themselves to the toxic pollutants and caustic dust. On their way back, they could have contaminated both their environs and the people around them.
Environmental and Health Impacts of Asbestos
As a Group 1, known human carcinogen, asbestos is a serious problem. Individuals who have been exposed to asbestos fibers are more likely to experience respiratory disorders. Many buildings constructed before the 1980s contain asbestos, and even buildings built later could have asbestos components, such as insulation, roofing tiles, and other products. This includes former World Trade Center buildings that were destroyed during the 9/11 attacks.
One of the most damaging diseases caused by asbestos is mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer affecting the thin membrane (known as the mesothelium) surrounding the lungs, abdomen, heart, or testicles. Once inhaled, asbestos fibers can get lodged in the membrane, causing irritation and inflammation. Eventually, the physiological effects of the inflamed mesothelium can lead to the development of tumors, though the exact mechanism by which this happens is still unknown.
Asbestos can also lead to other diseases and conditions, including (but not limited to):
- Asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs)
- Lung cancer
- Pleural plaques
- Diffuse asbestos thickening
- Asbestos warts
- Potentially other cancers of abdominal organs
All of these conditions, including mesothelioma, are part of the long-lasting effects of the destruction that occurred on 9/11. Tens of thousands of people were exposed to the asbestos that became airborne that day, and it’s unclear how long it will be before we see the full effects of the disease caused by Twin Towers debris.
Mesothelioma in particular is a hidden danger. It can take decades for the disease to develop and be detected. Even fifteen years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there is no way to know how many people may contract this rare and deadly form of cancer. All we can do is hope that it is caught in time for patients to have a fighting chance – or for someone to find a cure.