Much print space has been dedicated to the men and women who risked their lives during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11, 2001. Now, researchers are discovering that rescue workers – many of whom dug through flaming rubble and endured intense asbestos exposure – are still suffering, long after their experiences in an extraordinarily toxic environment.
Most people have seen it in pictures and video clips: firefighters and emergency volunteers wading through piles of dust, battling flames and intense heat, inhaling thick dust or choking on smoke from combusted jet fuel.
Research Confirms Health Conditions of Rescue Workers
For years, doctors have suspected that this environment posed a severe health risk to all involved. Finally, as the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, researchers are releasing information confirming this suspicion.
The reports are complex and technical, but their findings are simple: exposure to noxious gases, smoke, dust and asbestos particles at the site of the WTC has resulted in serious lung diseases among first responders and rescue workers.
Some of these conditions were apparent immediately, while others, like asbestosis or mesothelioma, may not appear for decades to come.
Consider a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the New York University School of Medicine sifted through seven years’ worth of data on the respiratory condition of first responders from the New York City Fire Department (FDNY).
What were they looking for? The team wanted to know how exposure to the air at Ground Zero affected the lung function of FDNY crew members.
Severe Losses in Lung Functioning Discovered
Their data showed that those who responded during the first year of recovery efforts tended to display severe losses in lung capacity and exhalation strength. The team emphasized that these losses were not small. The average decrease in lung function was 12 times larger than the normal loss associated with age.
Furthermore, the biggest blow to lung health occurred among firefighters and EMS personnel who responded on the morning of the attack itself, indicating that the worst of the effects came from exposure to the densest gases and dust.
Just what were first responders breathing 10 years ago, on the morning of 9/11 and for months afterward? Several reports appearing in a special commemorative issue of The Lancet spell it out.
WTC Air Filled with Known Carcinogens
According to one study, the collapse of the WTC filled the air with “a dense cloud of dust that contained particulates, glass ﬁbers, asbestos, lead, hydrochloric acid” and a number of other known carcinogens.
Another study noted that jet fuel fumes and alkaline cement dust also hung in the air for weeks after the initial disaster. Rescue workers often inhaled these substances in massive quantities.
Exposure to such toxins can fast-track dozens of terrible health problems. These include asthma, sinusitis, gastrointestinal reflux, heart disease and poor lung function, according to several studies published in the journal.
Scientists noted that it may be years before the effects of this tragedy are fully understood and accounted for.
Consider asbestos, which many first responders inhaled to a degree almost unthinkable in the U.S. today. Research has shown that the effects of asbestos exposure – which include asbestosis and mesothelioma – often take decades to manifest themselves.
It will be some time before anyone can estimate the impact of asbestos-related mesothelioma on first responders, volunteers and New York City residents.
Once diagnosed, any volunteers who have this disease will face a grim prognosis. Even when mesothelioma has not spread throughout the body, patients typically live just 16 months beyond their initial diagnosis, according to the National Cancer Institute.