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Why More People Will Die from the WTC Asbestos Than The 9/11 Attack Itself

Almost 3000 people died in the September 11, 2001 attacks. However, already 1,366 people have died since then from a range of illnesses related to the toxic dust at the scene.

The legacy of 9/11 and the twin towers attack is more than just from that day, week, or year. It’s a legacy of sickness, cancer, and a massive death toll that far outweighs that from the day.

What Is the Problem?

During the 1960s and ‘70s, when the WTC was built, asbestos was used as a fire retardant. It was cheap, light, and readily accessible. Things like spray-on asbestos was applied to steel beams, but only to the first 40 floors. This was because halfway through construction, new legislation was expected, banning the use of the mineral.

However, this measure was too late. When the towers collapsed in 2001, there was about 400 tonnes of dust produced. It was made up of about 50% nonfibrous construction materials, 40% glass, 9.2% cellulose from disintegrated paper, and 0.8% asbestos. That is about 2,000 tonnes of asbestos fibres, floating around Manhattan. The levels of asbestos around ground zero were about 112,000 times higher than the legal limit.

We know there is no safe levels of asbestos, so what does this mean for first responders, survivors, and Manhattanites?

There were between 410,000 and 525,000 first responders, recovery and clean-up people who were exposed to huge amounts of contamination in the immediate fallout. Around 10,000 people who were in the buildings escaped but were in the vicinity during the collapse. And finally, the ‘New York City Disaster Area’ (NYCDA) is an area of 1.5 miles around the site of the World Trade Centre, had around 35,000 people who lived their lives in the fallout zone. That number dwarfs the number killed in the immediate attack. These people are the ongoing victims of the disaster. There are almost 80,000 people enrolled in the World Trade Centre Health Program, which has been created to monitor the ongoing fallout.

The first responders started rescuing people with no personal protective equipment. The correct respirators weren’t available until a week after the attacks, and they were not always used as they were bulky, created communication challenges, and slowed and impeded movement.

The end result is a lot of toxic asbestos dust was inhaled.

What’s Happening Now?

Already, there have been victims of asbestos. From soon after the attacks, people developed the ‘World Trade Centre’ cough, a mix of asthma, bronchitis, and chronic rhinosinusitis. About half of residents in the NYCDA reported symptoms of the cough as little as six weeks after the attack.

So far, there has also been:

  • An 16% uptick of cancer diagnoses in firefighters who worked throughout 9/11, up from 8% in 2007
  • 1,366 people who have died from these cancers
  • At least 352 people have already been diagnosed with asbestosis
  • 444+ people who have been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis
  • 70% of people involved with the WTC recovery have reported lung problems, with 35% of rescuers seeking medical care
  • Increased mesothelioma cases and a ‘significant increase’ is expected in the future

While all of these illnesses cannot be 100% attributed to asbestos testing – after all, cancer and lung problems occur in the general public also, and there was significant pollution and dust after the event anyway- there is plenty to be concerned about. There was mercury, benzene (from burning jet fuel), and dioxins and other carcinogens in and around the WTC debris, and ongoing fires at the site continued for months, into February 2002, producing toxic gases, fumes, and smoke.

What Can We Expect in the Future?

For those who worked or lived in and around the WTC in 2001, the next 20 to 30 years will be a time of waiting and watching.

Already, there’s a noticeable increase in thyroid, prostate, oesophagus and leukaemia cases. But the symptoms of asbestos show on average 30 years after the asbestos is inhaled. Over the next ten to twenty years, America is preparing for an increase of asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancers.

The illnesses so far are very much dose-dependent. Those on site first and who operated without PPE have the higher rates of illness.

It’s Not All Bad News

Although diagnosis rates are higher in first responders, the death rate is lower than the general public. Medical experts have explained that fire fighters and police officers tend to have better health than most, a lower rate of smoking, and are fitter. They also have higher screening rates and faster identification of illnesses than the general population.

With knowledge of these diseases and risk factors, there things that people can do to decrease their risk. Being involved in the World Trade Centre Health Program gives people access to increased screening and health monitoring. People have been told to maintain a healthy weight, reduce cholesterol intake, and stop smoking, as all these factors help to decrease likelihood of cancer developing, but also increase survival rates if cancer does develop.

Why Should 9/11 Asbestos Exposure Interest You?

Because, while you (hopefully) will never be exposed to asbestos and other carcinogens in the same way first responders were, it’s important to know than urban and ambient exposure happens every day. You are exposed to low levels of carcinogens every day.

The best thing you can do to avoid asbestos exposure, compounding on the ambient exposure, is to ensure that if you, or someone you know, is removing asbestos on their property, it is best to get a professional to do so. Failure to remove it correctly and take appropriate risk-minimising factors can have lethal consequences over time.

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