When the towers of the World Trade Center fell, thousands of people lost their lives immediately. But those who survived, including people in the buildings, those nearby, and first responders, inhaled a toxic stew of dust that include fibers of asbestos used to construct the towers. This exposure made people sick, and even today, nearly 20 years later it is still harming the survivors.
The Toxic Dust in the Air
When the massive buildings came crashing down in 2001, many of the materials in the towers were pulverized and entered the air as a thick dust. Almost 500,000 people were exposed to the toxic air, but those closest to it, covered in the white dust, received the most exposure. These were the first responders rushing into help.
Exposure included 400 tons of dust made of cement, glass, lead and other heavy metals, dioxin, PCBs, gypsum, cellulose, and asbestos, among others. In the week following the tragedy analysis of the air in the vicinity of the towers showed a greater than one percent level of asbestos. This is above the threshold of significant risk to human health.
Health Effects of Asbestos Last Decades
Asbestos exposure can cause serious respiratory diseases, including asbestosis, a scarring of the lung tissue, lung cancer, and pleural mesothelioma. The latter is particularly insidious and deadly. It is an aggressive cancer that begins in the pleural tissue around the lungs.
The damage caused by asbestos fibers takes decades to develop and manifest as symptoms. Workers who responded to the World Trade Center disaster and who spent time afterwards cleaning up, were put at serious risk of getting sick years later because of asbestos.
First Responders and Other Still Getting Sick
The lasting impact of asbestos exposure and other toxic substances is still being felt by first responders. Some have been sick for years, while others are just beginning to feel the effects of the toxic dust. A study published in 2017, for instance, examined CT chest scans for over 1,000 first responders at the World Trade Center. Nearly a quarter of the workers showed abnormalities in the pleural tissue.
The harm extends beyond first responders. A program at Mount Sinai Hospital that funds treatment for people impacted by the disaster has enrolled more than 70,000 people. More than 8,000 of these people have already been diagnosed with some type of cancer. The director of the program expects to start seeing more cases of mesothelioma now that it has been nearly twenty years since first exposure.
Asbestos Illnesses and Medical Bills
Not only are first responders facing the greatest risk of getting sick after the events of 2001, but they are also facing mounting medical bills. Billions of dollars have already been distributed by the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund. But the fund is running low. Administrators warn they will have to cut the payouts significantly.
The timing is unfortunate for those people who are now getting sick because of asbestos. The long latency period between exposure to asbestos and symptoms that led to a diagnosis means that these victims may not get the funding they need to cover medical care.
The tragedy of the World Trade Center was massive on the day it happened. That tragedy has rippled decades into the future. The residual effects of the toxic dust that came from the towers are ongoing. They are even expected to pick up pace as more survivors start to develop symptoms and get sick. The number of victims continues to grow.
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