Although the devastation caused by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11 still cannot be put into words, some of the most devastating long-term consequences are still being revealed.
Numerous cases of mesothelioma, a rare yet insidious cancer which is almost exclusively linked to asbestos exposure, may still be in store for the first responders to those attacks and the general population of lower Manhattan and surrounding boroughs.
Asbestos, an organically occurring and fibrous mineral, has been used in myriad construction applications, especially fireproofing and insulation applications. The initial estimates for the construction of the Twin Towers, which were built between 1966-1971, called for 5,000 tons of asbestos to be used as fireproofing materials. As the hazards and health risks of asbestos began to be understood, however, the builders of the Twin Towers ceased using asbestos-containing insulation. At that point they had completed 64 stories of the 110-story skyscrapers. Some of the asbestos material was abated from the site, but at the time of the 9/11 attacks, it is estimated that 2,000 tons of asbestos remained within the buildings.
The problem with asbestos is that its fibers, when destroyed or disturbed, can become airborne, where they are easily inhaled or ingested. These fibers, although microscopic, are sharp and needle-like and can penetrate the body's soft tissues. Especially vulnerable are the lungs, the pleural cavity, and a special membrane called the mesothelium, which protects the lungs, heart and abdominal area. Asbestos is a carcinogen, and can lead to malignant mesothelioma as well as other diseases.
As anyone who was near the WTC when the towers collapsed - or who saw the footage on television - knows, there were thick clouds of pollution and debris covering the lower end of Manhattan like a fog. The location of the towers, which soon after the attacks became known as Ground Zero, was covered in debris and dust. Some estimates put the number of people exposed to this toxic fog of contaminants at 600,000. Included among these contaminants were not only asbestos but heavy metals such as mercury, zinc, lead and barium. The particulate matter lingered in the air and on surfaces for weeks after the tragedy. The shirt worn by one worker at the Twin Towers was later found to have 93,000 times more asbestos than the average air concentration in major cities.
At a particularly high level of exposure, of course, were the people who escaped the collapsing buildings as well as the first responders who rushed toward them in a valiant attempt to help.
Although some of the first responders, such as the many firefighters who were summoned to the scene, were equipped with respirators and protective clothing, the majority of people - onlookers, police, health-care providers, volunteers and employees of the WTC's many companies and businesses who were trying to escape the catastrophe - did not have any such protection.
Exposure to asbestos, especially repeated exposure or high levels of exposure, has been directly linked to mesothelioma cancer. One of the most troublesome aspects of mesothelioma is its delayed latency period, which means that afflicted people do not exhibit symptoms of the disease until years or possibly even decades after the exposure. An individual can live with mesothelioma and have no idea, until a diagnosis is eventually made, up to 50 years after first inhaling the asbestos fibers. Since the World Trade Center was attacked occurred so recently, we don't yet know how many of the responders, rescue personnel and bystanders contracted mesothelioma at that time.
Since the symptoms of mesothelioma - difficulty breathing, wheezing or coughing, chest pain - are often difficult to distinguish for other, more common lung ailments, the number of 9/11 victims suffering with mesothelioma may be tricky to estimate. Yet there are some statistics concerning the health problems of those who were at the scene of the terrorist attacks.
In 2008, the New York State Department of Health estimated that 200 people had died as a result of the pollutants or other problems at Ground Zero. At least 55 of those had been victims of lung cancer. A whopping 62% of those exposed to the dust and contaminants resulting from the attacks have reported experiencing respiratory problems.
There are some options for mesothelioma treatment, including surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and palliative care. The earlier the disease is diagnosed, the better chances are that treatment will be effective, so if you or someone you love was on the scene at Ground Zero at the time of the attacks or shortly thereafter, please let your doctor know immediately so that you can be screened for the deadly cancer.