by Rosie Rosati

On September, 11th 2001, hundreds of thousands of firefighters, responders, and volunteers rushed to Lower Manhattan to aid those lost in the destruction of the World Trade Center. U.S. citizens will never forget the devastation that swept the nation that day, however, those who so graciously lent a helping hand are still suffering the consequences of toxic airborne emissions.

Upon the attacks, thick clouds of dust covered the skyline, covering workers, civilians, and public infrastructure in heavy ashes. In a rush to rescue those beneath the rubble, responders selflessly fought their way through damaged building materials, inhaling smoke filled with known carcinogens, including metals, mercury, glass fibers, dioxins, and asbestos.

While approximately 3,000 innocent lives were lost that day, over 2,000 lives have subsequently been claimed by 9/11-related conditions. As the death toll continued to climb, The World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP) was launched and is now committed to monitoring the health of anyone impacted by this tragedy. The program estimates that over 400,000 people were exposed to ground zero emissions, yet only around 80,000 people have registered. While the remaining victims simply may not know or prefer to sweep the reality under the rug, the program reports that as many as 10,000 of these enrollees are now diagnosed with cancer.

For 18 years, our news has shown glimpses of personal testimonies from those suffering from chronic conditions related to 9/11, yet our environmental leaders once told a different story; one that assured air samples posed little threat to recovery and clean-up crews. As an increasing number of volunteers come forward with symptoms proving the contrary, physicians expect to treat a “third wave” of victims who may have inhaled these carcinogens.

Approaching the “third wave”

Studies suggest 9/11 first responders now have a heightened risk for a variety of cancers, including lung cancer, multiple myeloma, thyroid, and prostate cancer, but there is insufficient evidence to firmly link these conditions to ground zero. Medical experts warn that lung cancer has become of the utmost concern, as this particular condition can take the longest amount of time to present symptoms. Dr. Michael Chrane, who runs the WTCHP at Mount Sinai stated, “We’re watching for increasing numbers of cancers, particularly those that may be related to longer acting and longer duration toxins like asbestos.”

While members of our government and the media have been known to make light of the dangers of asbestos, the truth is that 300-400 tons of these fibers were unknowingly used to construct the World Trade Center towers. These fibers are even suggested to have been manufactured from Libby, Montana, home to one of the most toxic man-made disasters our nation has ever seen. This city is notorious for locally mining vermiculite, a naturally occurring mineral often used for insulation in buildings and homes. Years later, the mine was discovered to be flooded with friable asbestos and essentially poisoned the town. While not all byproducts of this mineral are harmful, this specific mine supplied 70 percent of our nation’s vermiculite between 1919-1990. With a population of less than 2,700 people, 400 have died from exposure and around 3,000 are suffering from an asbestos-related illness spanning over decades, with people still being diagnosed today.

Despite this national crisis, many continue to argue that the risks of inhalation are insignificant at best. World renowned expert in pleural mesothelioma and asbestosis, Dr. Raja Flores, has studied the impact of asbestos exposure on the citizens of Libby and disputed this notion, stating: “It’s common sense that what happened in Libby will start happening to the people in New York. That’s frightening and it’s a big deal.”

To this day, mesothelioma, a rare cancer that manifests in the lining of internal organs, is only known to occur as a result of the inhalation or ingestion of microscopic asbestos fibers. However, it’s important to understand that inhaling asbestos can induce more common conditions such as lung, larynx, and ovarian cancer. This, along with the fact that the latency period is between 20-50 years, makes it incredibly difficult to pinpoint asbestos as the true commonality and cause of these cancers. Despite these obstacles, one fact for sure is that we are entering the decade where symptoms are ready to make themselves obviously known.

While Dr. Flores has emphasized that asbestos exposure may not necessarily result in such grim diagnoses, he works closely with 9/11 patients and has found himself operating on 1-2 dust victims a month. Erring on the side of caution, he encourages victims to be screened once a year and voiced his concern stating, “I think you will probably see double or tripling of the number of lung cancers in people who were in NYC on 9/11 and mesothelioma and people dying of pleural fibrosis from asbestosis.”

Considering that Mesothelioma Awareness Day also falls in September (9/26), it’s important to shed light on this topic. Although this rare cancer only impacts about 3,000 people a year, asbestos has been confirmed to be airborne at ground zero where the rubble burned for several months. Nearly two decades later, as we reach the era where symptoms may surface, we urge anyone potentially exposed to talk to their doctor about monitoring their health and getting screened regularly. Although it’s been 18 years since the tragedies of 9/11, those affected by toxic exposures need our support more than ever.

Rosie Rosati is dedicated to writing and educating the public on the dangers of asbestos and advocating for those impacted by unwarranted exposure.

This piece was published in partnership with the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center.

Cover image: “American Flag” by Zoramite is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

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