The Lasting Health Effects of the 9/11 Attack and Others Things Overlooked

Dust and Smoke Trail from Space

September 11, 2001 is a day that will always live in Americans minds. 2, 996 people died in the attacks on that horrific day, including an estimated 500 foreign nationals from 91 Nations. (More numbers related to 9/11)

Although the loss of so many people was publicized to no end (rightfully so), the subject that still seems to slip through the cracks is the number of people who have gotten sick after simply trying to help those in need at Ground Zero.

9/11 Health Effects

The dust from the collapsed towers was “wildly toxic”, according to air pollution expert and University of California Davis Professor Emeritus Thomas Cahill. The thousands of tons of toxic debris resulting from the collapse of the Twin Towers consisted of more than 2,500 contaminants, more specifically: 50% non-fibrous material and construction debris; 40% glass and other fibers; 9.2% cellulose; and 0.8% of the extremely toxic carcinogen asbestos, as well as detectable amounts of  lead and mercury. There were also unprecedented levels of dioxin and PAHs from the fires which burned for three months. Many of the dispersed substances (asbestos, crystalline silica, lead, cadmium, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are carcinogenic; other substances can trigger kidney, heart, liver, and nervous system deterioration.

For five months after the initial attack, dust from the pulverized buildings continued to fill the air of the World Trade Center site.

To date, 75 recovery workers at ground zero have been diagnosed with blood cell cancers that a half-dozen top doctors and epidemiologists have confirmed as having been likely caused by that exposure.

A study of 5000 rescue workers published in April 2010 by Dr. David J. Prezant, the chief medical officer for the Office of Medical Affairs at the New York City Fire Department, found that all the workers studied had impaired lung functions with an average impairment of 10 percent. The study found the impairments presented itself in the first year of after the attack with little or no improvements in the ensuing six years. 30 to 40 percent of workers were reporting persistent symptoms and 1000 of the group studied were on “permanent respiratory disability.” Dr. Prezant noted the medications that are being given to ease symptoms but are not a cure. Dr. Byron Thomashow, medical director of the Center for Chest Disease and Respiratory Failure at New York–Presbyterian/Columbia hospital, said that “The drop-off in lung function initially is really quite significant and doesn’t get better. That’s not what we’ve generally come to expect in people with fire and smoke exposure. They usually recover.”

9,500 Rescue and recovery workers were tested and examined at Mount Sinai Medical Center between 2002 and 2004. These are the number of different ailments found to have been caused by their work at the World Trade Center site:

  • Upper respiratory illnesses (84 percent), such as sinusitis, laryngitis, and vocal cord dysfunction
  • Lower respiratory disorders (47 percent) such as asthma and a condition known as World Trade Center cough
  • Psychological disorders (37 percent) such as post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic depression, and
  • Musculoskeletal problems (31 percent), often from injuries that occurred while working on “the pile” at ground zero.

The World Trade Center Health Registry, operated by New York City, is tracking the long-term health effects of 9/11 on approximately 71,000 people, including those who lived or worked in lower Manhattan on 9/11 and during the months when workers were cleaning up the site.

Eleven days after the attacks claimed more than 2,700 lives, Congress created a $7 billion fund to compensate 5,562 family members of the fallen. Payments went to widows and widowers, children and parents. Our hero’s did not receive the same treatment. February 2002, under heavy pressure, Congress allotted $90 million to pay for the long-term monitoring of ground-zero workers. But the program covers only screening — not treatment. There’s a federal Victims Compensation Fund, but it only applies to people who were at ground zero between September 11 and 15.

Dr. John Howard, the federal 9/11 health coordinator, has said the $52 million that the U.S. government set aside in 2005 for treatment is inadequate. After years of bitter debate, in December 2010, Congress created a special fund that sets aside $2.8 billion for five years to provide compensation to rescue workers and others sickened from exposure to toxic fumes, dust and smoke from ground zero after the 2001 terrorist attack. Though money can only do so much, I hope the Congress’s unacceptably late decision will help with medical bills for those affected.

9/11 & Dogs

Around 400 dogs were dispatched to help recover survivors and remains after the attack, the only dog to lose his life in the disaster was a Yellow Labrador Retriever named Sirius.  He worked for the Port Authority as a bomb-detection dog alongside his partner Sergeant David Lim.  Lim and Sirius were in the basement of the South Tower when the North Tower was attacked.  He put the 4-year-old dog in his kennel and left to check on the situation.

“I told him, I think we’re in a lot of trouble right now,” said Lim, who assumed he and Sirius had somehow failed to detect an explosive. “I said, I’ll be back for you.”

But before Lim could return, the South Tower collapsed, followed by the North Tower.  Lim was trapped on the fourth floor with six firefighters and an injured woman. They were all safely rescued five hours later.

Lim came back for Sirius as he promised, but it was too late.  He continued to look for his partner until eventually — on Jan. 22, 2002 — the dog’s remains were uncovered. The Port Authority held a memorial service in his honor and has since built a memorial at Battery Park with a dog run.

For pictures of some surviving rescue dogs go here.

To the 411 firefighters and rescue workers who were killed: it’s an honor to have such brave, caring heros. You will never be forgotten. I would also like to mention the nearly 900 rescue workers that selflessly helped in the wake of a disaster, who have died due to the effects of the toxic dust let off by the fall of the twin towers. More information can be found here.

Though the World Trade Center fatality numbers were high, let us not forget the so often overlooked 125 victims of the Pentagon attack, as well as those extremely brave souls on United Airline Flight 93 whose 40 passengers attempted to gain control of the plane after learning through phone calls that similarly hijacked planes had crashed into buildings that morning. Once it became evident to the hijackers that the passengers might regain control of the plane, one hijacker ordered another to roll the plane and intentionally crash it, Flight 93 crashed in a field near Shanksville, PA at 10:03 a.m. Flight 93’s ultimate target is believed to have been either the Capitol or the White House.

I am also compelled to emphasise the horror the Middle Eastern people have gone through. Between 2004 and 2008, al-Qaida claimed responsibility for 313 attacks, resulting in the deaths of 3,010 people. And even though these attacks include terrorist incidents in the West — in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005 — only 12 percent of those killed (371 deaths) were Westerners. These people have gone through so much suffering… it’s time we stand together, stop pointing fingers, and just do what’s right.


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