On the morning of September 11, 2001, as we watched the immediate impact of the unthinkable terrorist attacks on our nation unfold, we saw the plumes of toxic dust from the collapse of the Twin Towers cover lower Manhattan and drift down the Hudson River. We also saw the fearless American heroes ― firefighters, police officers, paramedics, construction workers, and volunteers ― risk their own lives to work in the Ground Zero rubble, evacuating and triaging the injured.
As survivors were pulled from the rubble, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released statements that would soon haunt America forever.
In one statement, former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman tried to reassure the people in lower Manhattan that air monitoring showed the “public in these areas are not being exposed to excessive levels of asbestos or other harmful substances.” In another press release, Whitman told the people of New York and Washington, D.C. “that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink.”
Fifteen years later, we know how far from the truth that was. While New York City smoldered, thousands inhaled and swallowed hazardous debris. Today, the long-term health effects of this exposure to toxic chemicals felt by 9/11 rescue workers and survivors. And for many, the results have proven to be deadly.
The Ongoing Tragedy
“The World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP) monitors and treats over 65,000 WTC rescue/recovery workers in its Responders cohort and almost 10,000 community members in the Survivors Program,” said Dr. Michael Crane, Director of the WTCHP at Mount Sinai Hospital. “Forty-three percent of these workers and community members are afflicted with chronic, exposure-related conditions.”
Cancer incidence just among firefighters who were at Ground Zero on and directly after 9/11 has spiked by approximately 20 percent compared with New York firefighters who weren’t exposed at the WTC, according to the FDNY Study of WTCHP.
“It’s been steady for at least the last year and a half ― we’re seeing new people here being certified for cancer 10-15 times week,” Crane said.
The dust that spread as the towers came down was laced with toxic substances, including ground glass, lead, gypsum, calcite, and asbestos — hundreds of tons of asbestos. For more than a century, asbestos has been known to cause disabilities and death. Exposure can cause mesothelioma, lung, gastrointestinal, laryngeal, and ovarian cancers, and non-malignant lung and respiratory diseases. Though a known carcinogen since the early 20th century, asbestos was widely used in the construction of the World Trade Center, including in the application of since-banned fireproofing asbestos spray. Since 1900, the U.S. has consumed 31 million metric tons of asbestos.
“Mesothelioma is on the list of certified 9/11-related health conditions,” said Pat Morrison, Assistant to the General President for Occupational Health, Safety and Medicine at the International Association of Firefighters. Morrison said none of the first responders in the study have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, “likely because of the long latency period between the exposure and disease onset.”
Asbestos-caused diseases kill as many as 15,000 Americans per year, but the latency period between exposure and onset is between 10-50 years. This means that we’re only just starting to see the tragic toll asbestos exposure at Ground Zero will ultimately take.
Our Turn to Clean Up the Mess
Around 90,000 Americans volunteered to brave the burning rubble of the Twin Towers, desperately digging through debris in hopes of finding and saving survivors, but only 65,000 people are currently being monitored by the WTCHP, according to a Chicago Tribune article.
“There’s still a good chunk of folks out there who responded to the event and most likely have not been seen by anybody yet,” Crane told the Chicago Tribune. He added that around 9,500 of 9/11 volunteers traveled to Manhattan from out of state, and their personal doctors may not connect an illness or symptom to their exposure at Ground Zero.
The 9/11 heroes are not the only victims of asbestos exposure. A recent National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study in San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia found that “firefighters in the study had a rate of mesothelioma two times greater than the rate in the U.S. population as a whole.”
Asbestos has been so ubiquitously present in construction materials, as well as in flooring, roofing and consumer goods, that when structures burn, deadly asbestos fibers are almost inevitably released into the air. Firefighters and rescue workers who willingly put their lives at risk when they run into disasters may be fortunate enough to survive the initial disaster, but may still have to face the damage of asbestos exposure years down the road.
Despite the long-standing and widespread knowledge of the deadly nature of asbestos, it remains legal and lethal in the U.S., and we still import hundreds of tons per year to “meet manufacturing needs.” As long as we continue to pump this deadly mineral into our built environment and commerce, we perpetuate the undue risk it poses not just to the public, but to our heroes in times of crisis.
History Is a Great Teacher to Those Who Listen
There is good news — we’ve never been closer to a ban on asbestos than we are now. Over the summer, Congress passed The Lautenberg Act, a massive, bipartisan and bicameral bill that reforms our 40-year-old, badly broken Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
When President Obama signed TSCA into law, he singled out asbestos as explanation for why the reforms were so desperately needed: “… the system was so complex, so burdensome that our country hasn’t even been able to uphold a ban on asbestos ― a known carcinogen that kills as many as 10,000 Americans every year. I think a lot of Americans would be shocked by that.”
The EPA is now required to announce before the end of the year a list of the top ten toxins selected for priority review. There is overwhelming consensus among medical and environmental organizations that asbestos must be named on this list, as well as strong Congressional support, with multiple senators writing open letters to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy advocating for prioritizing asbestos.
On Tuesday, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) is hosting its 10th Congressional Staff briefing to educate the Senate on the continued yet entirely preventable risk asbestos poses to the American public. At this meeting, we will ask them to consider the thousands of Ground Zero workers who became victims of asbestos exposure 15 years ago today. It’s time we honor their sacrifice with a promise to protect the future generations of American heroes who will follow in their footsteps.
“These guys saved us,” said Dr. Raja Flores, chairman of thoracic surgery at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center. “It is now our turn to save them.”