Asbestos Risk for 9/11 First Responders and Survivors

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, shook the bedrock of American society. Decades later, a health crisis is emerging from the Twin Towers collapsing — a surge in 9/11-related mesothelioma cases.

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Written by Jenna Campagna, RN

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Fact Checked

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Ground Zero — The Unknown Health Hazard

When the World Trade Centers collapsed on 9/11, a cloud of toxic dust and debris blanketed Manhattan. This dust contained an array of carcinogenic particles: lead, mercury, dioxins, benzene and, of course, asbestos.

First responders, survivors and lower Manhattan residents all were exposed to loose asbestos particles on that day — and for weeks after. Mesothelioma takes between 20 and 50 years to form after exposure, so the initial wave of mesothelioma cases should begin any day. In fact, there is already a reported case of a 9/11 first responder getting diagnosed.

Asbestos in the World Trade Centers

Asbestos was a headline-grabber following 9/11. Reports analyzed how much asbestos was scattered throughout downtown New York City from the Twin Towers debris. Even in 2001, though, not all Americans knew asbestos could cause cancer.

Construction on the Twin Towers began August 5, 1966, before any regulations had been placed on the use of asbestos. The National Resources Defense Council estimates 300-400 tons of asbestos in the North Tower.

At the time the Twin Towers were built, asbestos was considered a safe fire-retardant component. When stable and undisturbed, asbestos is safe. However, the towers crumbling broke apart the thousands upon thousands of sharp fibers and sent them flying in the open New York air.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initially reported no long-term health risk for 9/11 asbestos exposure. A week after the attacks, though, the EPA uncovered that:

  • 25% of bulk dust samples consisted of a troublesome amount of asbestos by the agency’s own standards (more than 1%)
  • Seven samples had levels between 2.1% and 3.3%

Who Is At Risk?

Anyone in lower Manhattan at the time the Twin Towers collapsed was at risk of asbestos exposure. This group is therefore at risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

The group in danger of this asbestos-caused cancer are:

  • First responders
  • Employees working in the World Trade Center or surrounding buildings
  • Residents of the lower Manhattan area

The Office of Inspector General’s report from 2003 criticized the delayed “government-organized and adequately monitored cleanup in Lower Manhattan.” It states the poor response “may have contributed to unnecessary exposure to asbestos and other pollutants by unprotected workers and residents.”

First Responders

First responders are the heroes who ran towards the mayhem and helped save many American lives following the attacks. These brave people include firefighters, emergency workers, police and even some private citizens.

Many first responders were not considering the toxins they were inhaling or ingesting as they worked to save lives. Most had no respiratory protection equipment.

One website, the Lancelet, reported that firefighters are an example of a first responder group that is at risk. Firefighters exposed to 9/11 asbestos from the World Trade Center are 19% more likely than non-Ground Zero firefighters to develop cancer.

In October 2019, a 52-year-old first responder from Pennsylvania died of mesothelioma. Doctors and news reports linked his cancer to 9/11 asbestos exposure. He was a firefighter in the White Oak Rescue team, which responded to 9/11 rescue needs.

The victim was diagnosed with stage 3 pleural mesothelioma, and he died a few months later. Dr. Raja Flores is the director of thoracic surgical oncology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. He believes this case is the first of many, possibly in the tens of even hundreds.

“You’re going to see, one by one, another year and another patient,” Dr. Flores said. “Then another year and another patient. Maybe another year and then two patients. Then one year there will be six or seven.”

Residents and Workers of Lower Manhattan

Unfortunately, to the risk and potential detriment of Manhattan residents, officials did not close and quarantine the areas blanketed in the toxic dust. The EPA mistakenly deemed that the levels of asbestos were not a concern.

Asbestos fibers are so minuscule that they can remain airborne for days, weeks or months. The EPA and other agencies continued testing air quality for months after the terrorist attacks. People who lived in the areas coated by asbestos dust faced an ongoing health crisis, and some may develop mesothelioma due to it.

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9/11 Victim Compensation Fund

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act was signed into law in 2011 to help the victims of exposure to the toxins released on 9/11. The act pays tribute to James Zadroga, the first 9/11 responder to die from an exposure-related illness. The act was initially approved for five years.

Depleted Funding

In 2015, the U.S. government recommitted to the funding for 9/11 first responders. By 2019, though, funding for 9/11 dust-disease victims was depleted. The future of government compensation for 9/11 rescue heroes was in doubt.

Comedian and talk-show host Jon Stewart made multiple passionate pleas throughout the decade to Congress to supply more funding. In June 2019, Stewart put Congress on blast for what he perceived as a lack of care regarding 9/11 firefighters and other first responders.

“As I sit here today, I can’t help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting health care and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to,” Stewart said to Congress. “Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders, and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress.”

Government’s Eventual Long-Term Commitment

In July 2019, the government passed House Resolution 1327, which is titled “The Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.” The bill authorizes $10.2 billion for the next 10 years and additional funding through 2090.

Vox called this “a major win for first responders, who have been pushing for permanent funding for over a decade.”

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About the Writer, Devin Golden

Devin Golden is the content writer for Mesothelioma Guide. He produces mesothelioma-related content on various mediums, including the Mesothelioma Guide website and social media channels. Devin's objective is to translate complex information regarding mesothelioma into informative, easily absorbable content to help patients and their loved ones.