9/11 Firefighter Health Study Falls Short on Long-Latency Diseases Like Mesothelioma




On September 11, 2001, following a devastating terrorist attack, thousands of first responders raced toward the World Trade Center site in New York City in an attempt to rescue as many people as possible. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives that day, but many more were saved due to the heroic actions of firefighters, police officers and EMS workers who quickly arrived on scene. But on that day, those brave men and women were not only subjected to the stress of dangerous work, but also the long term threats that come from exposure to chemicals and toxins found in the ash and dust flurrying around Ground Zero.
More than 15 years later, studies are beginning to determine what the long-term effects are on first responders, residents and employees who worked at the site. However, it might still be too early to determine what damage has really been done and to what extent.

New Evidence of 9/11 Asbestos Health Problems

According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, although more 9/11 firefighters are being diagnosed with prostate and thyroid cancers, there is no discernable difference in the relative rates for a majority of cancer types at this point. To perform the study, testing was conducted using firefighters who responded to the 9/11 attacks and those located in other cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. Those results don’t tell the entire story though, and have yet to take into account the latency periods of several diseases, including mesothelioma.
Early on during the North Tower’s construction in the late 1960s, insulation including asbestos fibers was being used as a fireproofing material because of its high melting point. However, asbestos use in the towers was discontinued prior to a New York City ban on the substance in 1971. When both towers were completed, only the first 40 floors of the North Tower contained asbestos, while the rest of the North Tower and all of the South Tower used other fireproofing materials without the dangerous substance. A good portion of the asbestos was later removed in subsequent years, but following the terrorist attacks asbestos dust from the 20 or so floors where asbestos hadn’t been cleared yet drifted out into the city.
In the immediate moments following the towers’ collapse, approximately 4,000 first responders flooded the scene in an effort to rescue survivors and bring people to safety. Without proper respirators and other equipment, hundreds of workers inhaled toxic dust made up of not only asbestos, but other chemicals like cement which can cause extensive damage to the lungs. A Mount Sinai Hospital study conducted several years after the attack suggested approximately 70 percent of first responders became sick after breathing in toxic dust found at the site.

More to Come?

The general latency period for asbestos exposure lies somewhere between 10 – 40 years, so the true extent of damage may not be known for another generation. With that in mind, the United States is making sure anyone who becomes sick as a result of the terrorist attack is taken care of. As part of the World Trade Center Health Program, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) includes mesothelioma as one of its qualifying conditions in preparation for what cases may potentially come down the pike. The program is open to first responders, residents, workers and anyone else who was in the vicinity of Ground Zero, the Pentagon and the crash site near Shanksville, PA.
Looking ahead, more cases of mesothelioma and other lung diseases are anticipated to develop in those who were at Ground Zero the day of the infamous attacks. As of December 2015, more than 71,000 people had registered for the CDC’s New York City 9/11 Health Registry, which will play a large role in the organization’s continuing research-to-care model. With more research, there is a better chance to provide higher quality of care for those who risked their lives to help others on such a terrifying and deadly day.

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