In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, an enormous rescue, recovery, and cleanup effort was undertaken by both professional and volunteer first responders. Nearly 100,000 people came to Ground Zero to help, both in the immediate aftermath and for days, weeks, and months afterward.
Now, those first responders are dealing with health repercussions from their service—including mesothelioma.
What were 9/11 First Responders Exposed to?
The atmosphere around Ground Zero was extremely hazardous to the health of first responders—and has since been described as “wildly toxic” by health experts.
The impact of the planes crashing into the WTC and the collapse of the buildings caused 24,000 gallons of jet fuel to explode and ignite, dispersing 100,000 tons of organic debris in an enormous plume of soot and dust that coated the entire area of lower Manhattan. It also caused fires that continued to burn throughout rescue, recovery, and cleanup efforts, further casting toxins into the air—many of which lingered there for a prolonged period of time.
9/11 first responders breathed in this dust, soot, and toxic air. In the process, they inhaled and ingested elements of more than 2,500 contaminants, including carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, crystalline silica, benzine, dioxides, and other toxic, harmful, and carcinogenic particulates.
One of those contaminants was asbestos. Asbestos was widely used in construction as insulation and as a fire retardant in the first half of the 20th century. Due to the definitive link between exposure to asbestos fibers and mesothelioma (as well as other health conditions), asbestos usage was largely discontinued in construction around 1970. However, the WTC was built starting in August of 1966, and a large amount of asbestos was used in the construction of both towers. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that 300-400 tons of asbestos was used in the construction of the North Tower alone.
When the WTC buildings were hit and ultimately fell, it disturbed the asbestos in the buildings, sending an enormous concentration of asbestos fibers up into the air. These asbestos fibers were then inhaled by 9/11 first responders—as well as residents of lower Manhattan.
Who is at risk of developing mesothelioma related to 9/11?
Anyone who was in lower Manhattan when the World Trade Center buildings collapsed, and anyone involved in the rescue, recovery, and cleanup missions at Ground Zero in the wake of the attacks, is at risk of developing 9/11-associated mesothelioma.
- On-duty first responders (including firefighters, police officers, and transit authority officers)
- Volunteer first-responders
- Clean-up workers
- Employees working in the WTC or surrounding buildings
- People living or working in lower Manhattan on and after 9/11
Were there mistakes made in limiting exposure to asbestos and ensuing damages?
Yes. The original governmental response and lack of protection and containment efforts have been widely criticized as insufficient. The area was not closed off or quarantined, despite being blanketed in dangerous asbestos. This is in part because the EPA mistakenly stated that the asbestos levels in the air would not be a concern. Reports as early as 2003 from the Office of the Inspector General said that it “may have contributed to unnecessary exposure to asbestos and other pollutants by unprotected workers and residents.”
Have 9/11 First Responders been Diagnosed with Mesothelioma, or any other health conditions?
First responders and those who were present at Ground Zero and in lower Manhattan during and after the WTC attacks have developed a wide variety of health issues at elevated levels. As of 2021, at least 4,000 first responders have died from these conditions (or have had these conditions contribute to their deaths).
- Respiratory conditions
- Cardiovascular conditions
- Gastrointestinal and gastroesophageal conditions
- Over 60 types of cancer
- Mental health conditions
9/11 first responders, especially firefighters, also have a significantly elevated risk of developing mesothelioma.
However, due to the specific ways in which mesothelioma manifests, cases have only just begun to appear in accordance with exposure and risk rates.
On average, it takes around 20-50 years from the time of exposure to asbestos for symptoms of mesothelioma to appear. Still, there were several cases of mesothelioma among first responders in the years immediately following 9/11. David Miller, a member of the New York Army National Guard who spent two weeks at Ground Zero, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2005. Sean Callan, a stone mason who worked several blocks away from the WTC and who volunteered at Ground Zero for 31 days, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2003.
However, these cases were outliers. As aforementioned, due to mesothelioma’s normally long latency period, there was a lull in cases until recently—around the time of the 20-year anniversary of 9/11/2001.
In early 2019, a 52-year-old first responder from Pennsylvania (who was a firefighter and part of the White Oak Rescue Team) was diagnosed with stage 3 pleural mesothelioma. This cancer as definitively linked to the firefighter’s service work at Ground Zero. Unfortunately, as is the case for many late-diagnosed mesothelioma cases, he died within a few months of his diagnosis.
Dr. Raja Flores, the director of thoracic surgical oncology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, treated the first responder who was diagnosed in 2019. He believes that this case is “the first of many, possibly in the tens or even hundreds.”
Any first responders or people who lived or worked in lower Manhattan in the weeks and months following September 11th, 2001 should consider themselves at elevated risk for developing mesothelioma, and should be monitored by their primary care physician or by a mesothelioma specialist.