September 11th, 2001: The Enduring Health Legacy
by Brian Turner
September 9th, 2011

Surely 9/11 touched each and every American significantly. It was the end of American innocence, sending a powerful message about our place in the world. Today, almost without exception, each of us can say that because of that bright September morning, we have been changed for life. Mothers were left without sons; brothers without brothers, and friends were taken from friends by this senseless act of violence. Unfortunately, the ultimate legacy of 9/11 many still bear as they deal with the long-lasting health effects associated these terrorist attacks.

Some have been left with the psychological trauma from that day, while others, including first responders and other rescue workers present that day must now confront respiratory conditions from the non-infamous “World Trade Center dust” that blanketed much of lower Manhattan that day. Ten years later, we still grapple with the realities of this dust and its devastating effects. What we won’t know for many years is the true, enduring effect of this dust. But we do know, and what will become clear as we explore this topic, is that the effects of the 9/11 on our health will continue to haunt us for years to come.

Click on the infographic to enlarge
The Truth Behind Post-9/11 Environmental and Health Risks

As years pass, and even a decade later, more and more first responders are developing respiratory ailments that they were not at-risk of, or diagnosed with, prior to the 9/11 attacks as a direct result of toxic exposure. These ailments have ranged from the seemingly innocuous chronic cough to blood cell cancers. According to the American College of Preventative Medicine, asbestos concentrations in the air around Ground Zero were high enough to cause fear for persons developing malignant mesothelioma, lung cancer, or other chronic asbestos-related conditions.

None were more at risk than first responders and those who worked at the Ground Zero site in the weeks following the attacks. A 2010 assessment by the New England Journal of Medicine found that nearly all of the 13,000 workers present at the primary rescue site on the day-of and weeks following the attack, lost significant lung function. In the year following the attack, on average, workers lost approximately 10% of their lung function, with little or no recovery in the 6 years monitored thereafter.

Some health effects were immediate. Many developed chronic cough or chest pain even that day. New York Police Department member, Cesar Borja died of pulmonary fibrosis that was directly attributed to the World Trade Center air just months after the attacks. Unfortunately, he is unlikely to be the last.

Asbestos and other toxins are generally linked to long-term cancer risk in those exposed. Asbestos fibers will enter through the respiratory system and lodge in the lining of the chest and lungs. Over time (often 20-50 years, though direct respiratory effects of asbestos exposure have been documented in 9/11 first responders and workers), these fibers will irritate surrounding tissue, causing respiratory plaques to develop internally. This hardening of tissue will in many cases lead the development of lung cancer or mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer with no known cure.

Testing confirms that the dust that day contained nearly 2,500 contaminants, of which an extremely .8% was found to be asbestos. Lead, silicates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (resulting from the burning jet fuel from the aircraft), and many other carcinogens were all also present in significant levels within the dust, leading to fears that many more will be diagnosed with cancer as a result of exposure.

Many funding resources are now in place to process claims and provide assistance to those suffering from health complications suffered at Ground Zero. Unfortunately, cancer is not among the conditions that qualify for assistance at this time. Gaining momentum however, is an amendment to the Sept. 11th health program (more commonly known as the Zadroga Act) to have cancer added to the list of conditions eligible for assistance. A report of FDNY workers, which indicated that those present on September 11th were nearly 20% more likely to develop cancer than those who were not onsite, is helping to drive the motion forward.

Even on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, as we as a nation honor the memory of those who were killed that day, it is important to remember that 9/11 will have an enduring and painful legacy that we will continue to confront. Each day, we see those in government, the justice department, and the military make decisions based upon the lessons of 9/11, while we also see those who were exposed to toxins or suffered other ailments related to Ground Zero bear the lasting effects of these attacks.