The events of September 11, 2001 were an unspeakable act of terrorism. The aftermath is still felt today — and not only by those who lost loved ones. Thousands of first responders to the attacks are now being diagnosed with deadly forms of cancers, including mesothelioma. Many of these cancers are linked to asbestos exposure.
How 9/11 Exposed People to Asbestos
According to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the World Trade Center officially opened on April 4, 1973 after starting construction in 1966. The World Trade Center was built at a time when asbestos was widely used in the construction industry.
Asbestos, a naturally found mineral, is very durable and resists fire, water and chemical corrosion.
These properties made it very useful in a number of construction materials, including:
Though asbestos-containing products were marketed as safe, the opposite was true. When asbestos products are disturbed, microscopic asbestos fibers can enter the air. These fibers may become inhaled or ingested by those nearby. The fibers then settle inside the body and eventually lead to incurable forms of cancer, such as mesothelioma.
In New York, the health risks associated with asbestos became a public concern around 1970. Asbestos-based products were not used to finish construction of the trade centers, and full-scale abatement programs removed most of the asbestos from the buildings before 9/11.
Despite these removal efforts, asbestos was still present in the air after the planes struck. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that 25% of dust samples from Ground Zero had asbestos levels above what is considered safe, according to Scientific American.
Despite these findings, the EPA and local authorities claimed that the air around ground zero was safe to breathe in the weeks after 9/11. In the process, they not only downplayed the health risks of asbestos but many other toxic chemicals that entered the atmosphere.
In reality, asbestos, lead, glass particles, cement and other materials blended into an extremely hazardous cocktail that thousands of first responders inhaled as they tried to rescue survivors.
Who Is at Risk?
According to a recent report by NBC, almost half a million people who were at Ground Zero are at risk of developing serious health issues today. This is in part because, since the EPA falsely claimed that the air was safe, many first responders did not receive protective masks to wear as they worked.
At-risk first responders include:
- EMTs: In recent years, high-profile stories have come to light of EMTs getting sick — and dying from — 9/11-related cancer. These victims developed cancer in the ovaries, gallbladder, lungs and other areas.
- Firefighters: According to NBC, research has linked white, male firefighters who responded to 9/11 with a higher risk of cancers like multiple myeloma. These studies also showed that the firefighters would develop these cancers earlier than in average cases.
- Paramedics: Paramedics perform similar jobs to EMTs, but they have a greater depth of knowledge and can administer skin-piercing injections. Hundreds of paramedics rushed to help survivors on 9/11 and inhaled dangerous dust in the process.
- Policemen: A recent report from CBS News noted that 15 police officers died from 9/11-caused cancer in 2018. This count was four times higher than the previous year.
- Cleanup Crews: Ground Zero burned for over two months after the towers came down, according to a Scientific American report. Those who were tasked with the cleanup may have risked long-term exposure to asbestos and other chemicals.
Programs Helping 9/11 First Responders
Though reports immediately following 9/11 claimed that first responders were not at risk from air pollution, today the deadly truth has come to light.
In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that nearly 9,000 first responders have developed some form of cancer in the wake of 9/11. Hundreds of people have already died and more deaths are expected in the coming decades.
In response to this health crisis, several state and federal programs have been established to help people who may get sick as a result of 9/11. These programs help track the illnesses of those affected and assist them with seeking compensation.
Programs that help 9/11 first responders include:
- New York Workers’ Compensation: It may take decades before the health issues associated with 9/11 asbestos exposure arise. In light of this, the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board has extended the amount of time that first responders have to file a claim.
- September 11 Victim Compensation Fund: This federal program provides compensation to ill first responders and their families. Over $4 Billion has been set aside, but certain deadlines apply. The fund has been authorized by Congress through 2020.
- The World Trade Center Health Program: Through this program, first responders can receive medical treatment and counseling for certain 9/11-caused illnesses. Medical experts interviewed by NBC state that 8,000 of the 72,000 people enrolled in this program have cancer.
- The World Trade Center Health Registry: Responders, survivors and bystanders who were near Ground Zero are asked to fill out periodic health surveys. Because of this, the long-term mental and physical effects of 9/11 are recorded. This information helps doctors better treat those who have 9/11-caused illnesses.
- The World Trade Center Volunteer Fund: New Yorkers who volunteered their services during 9/11 may be eligible for compensation through this program. This $50 Million fund was established in 2001 by Congress to specifically help volunteers who were injured or got sick from their service.
Next Steps for 9/11 First Responders
The long-term health effects associated with 9/11 are still being investigated, and many brave first responders are still at risk today.
In their heroic efforts to save the lives of victims, first responders may have inhaled asbestos fibers, glass shards, toxic chemicals and concrete dust. Since it can take decades for asbestos-related diseases to become apparent, many first responders have only been diagnosed in recent years.
Their acts of courage and bravery will never be forgotten.
9/11 first responders deserve financial compensation and the best medical treatments available if they have gotten sick due to their service. These selfless men and women are encouraged to investigate state and federal programs that can award them with financial compensation for their illnesses.