On September 11th, thousands of brave men and women descended upon the the World Trade Center. They managed to save countless lives and many sacrificed their own lives as well when the towers collapsed. Those who were left worked 24 hour shifts looking for friends, colleagues, and coworkers trapped in the debris, refusing to let pain or despair break their spirit.
They worked under the impression that the air around the site was safe to breathe. They had been reassured by the EPA that they were safe and that sense of safety was in the back of their minds as they continued their search.
But nearly seven years after that fateful day, many had begun suffering from lung conditions including the rare cancer mesothelioma and some of those first responders ultimately lost their lives as a result of their work.
What was in the Dust?
The last thing rescue workers wanted to think about as they searched for survivors were the hazardous materials that lingered in the air and on debris. Asbestos, mercury, lead, barium, zinc, and other heavy metals would settle on protective equipment and come into contact with rescuers. The contaminants would linger for weeks and in some cases very high amounts. One worker’s shirt contained 93,000 times more asbestos than the average ambient air concentration in major US cities.
Asbestos was used for fireproofing the towers with initial estimates calling for nearly 5,000 tons of the material. During their construction, as the health problems of asbestos quickly became known and construction companies were pressured to phase out the material, builders stopped using asbestos at about the 64th floor. Later, some of the asbestos was removed but an estimated 2,000 tons of the material was still present when the towers were attacked.
First Responders Sickened from Exposure
In September 2006 a study of 9,500 first responders conducted by the Mount Sinai Medical Center showed that 70 percent of those surveyed had new or worsened respiratory problems with one third of those surveyed having abnormal pulmonary function. The study was able to correlate that responders who arrived first at the scene had the most frequent respiratory problems. One responder described the air as being “as thick as pea soup” and no one knows what the actual composition of the air was because the earliest monitoring/testing did not occur until a week after the attack when airborne materials were able to settle.
In early January 2008, it was reported that 204 first responders had died since the September 11th attacks. Of those 204, 98 death certificates had been obtained and showed the following results:
- 55 deaths from cancer (19 from lung cancer)
- 2 deaths from sarcoidosis, an immune system disorder commonly affecting the lungs
- 1 death from interstitial lung disease
- 1 death from granuloma pneumonitis
- 39 deaths from other causes (vehicle accidents, killed in the line of duty, heart attacks)
The first emergency responder reported to die from mesothelioma was Deborah Reeve, a 17-year veteran paramedic for the FDNY EMS. Deborah started to develop symptoms in 2003 and was diagnosed in 2004. She passed away in March 2006.
Some estimates claim that more than 600,000 people in the vicinity of the attacks were exposed hazardous materials resulting from the towers collapse. Of that number more than 100,000 may have been exposed to high levels of asbestos.