9/11 Memorial, NYC

Any disaster demands an immediate response from both emergency units and civilians within the vicinity. Tragedy always causes an outburst of energy to save the victims due to the adrenaline rush and the willingness to assist. People rarely give a second consideration of the environmental safety of the surrounding when attending to victims. It is natural and follows the human instinct to act that way. For the September 11 terrorist attacks, it was later apparent that the air was contaminated by toxic compounds, chief among them asbestos.

Asbestos is a carcinogenic mineral that occurs naturally, but has also been used for thousands of years as a material that can protect against fire and heat. It was used in the construction of the Twin Towers, which released tons of the deadly substance into the air when they collapsed on September 11, 2001. Many of the victims and rescuers who inhaled the pulverized asbestos later developed respiratory illnesses, with mesothelioma being the most prevalent disease among the reported cases.

Here are just a few of the individuals who were affected by the release of asbestos on that infamous day:

Jaime Hazan was among the first respondents during the incident. He spoke to CBC News that when he was growing up, volunteering was his staple of upbringing. Besides the passion for helping tragedy victims, he had worked for six years as a New York Emergency Medical Technician. Hence when 9/11 happened, he was compelled to offer assistance. “On 9/11, it was in that spirit that I volunteered—it wasn’t even a choice.”

What was seen as an act of kindness was later repaid by a development of respiratory problems. These became evident to him in the year 2005. “It destroyed my livelihood and will go down as the day that changed my life forever.”

David Miller, the co-founder of 9/11 Health Now, was also a first respondent to the scene. David was a New York Army National Guard when the incident happened. In 2005, just three and a half years after being exposed, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. This disease developed and affected his lungs. As a result, when he was addressing people, he could be seen with a hooked portable oxygen machine that aided his breathing. Unfortunately, he developed other cancer-related complications as well.

Sean Callan, a stone mason, worked several blocks from the World Trade Center. He assisted fleeing workers steering them to a secure site. Later, Sean volunteered in the rescuing mission at the debris for almost 31 days. It was that time that he inhaled toxic fumes which contained asbestos. In 2003, two years later, he was diagnosed with Mesothelioma. His two colleagues who were tested for the same type of cancer succumbed to its effect and had died.

Marcy Borders became an iconic figure of the asbestos-laden dust that blew all over Manhattan after 9/11. Known as the “Dust Lady,” Marcy worked at a Bank of America in the World Trade Center and was photographed shortly after the attacks covered in a thick film of dust. Sadly, Marcy passed away last year, rekindling for many people the ongoing tragedy of the 9/11 attacks.

Ernie Vallebuona, a NYPD detective, joined other police officers, emergency workers, and the public in helping the survivors. He described the site to CNN, “It was like a surreal scene. There was a lot of confusion, a lot of smoke.” He added, “You couldn’t see when you were trying to walk through the smoke to search for survivors. You know, you could barely see your hand in front of you.” After spending an additional six months at the site, he was diagnosed with lymphoma.

Medical teams investigating the aftermath health impacts of Ground Zero suggest that more cases are likely to arise with time. This is because the developments of such illness are gradual and can take years – even decades – before showing any symptoms.

Legislative Information and Programs

Numerous victims who developed asbestos-related illnesses after 9/11 have sought out assistance from the government, in many cases to no avail. The breakthrough happened after researchers studied the health complication developing among the firefighters who were first responders. Firefighters are periodically subjected to health tests to ascertain their condition. Many asked this question, including lawyers who had filed lawsuits: If these same fighters were deemed fit, how comes years after interacting with the debris developed cancer-related complications?

In honor of James Zadroga, the first NYPD officer to die of post-9/11 illness, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act was created. It was signed into law to by President Obama on January 2, 2011. The compensation process began, but later faced hitches due to inadequate funds. Furthermore, lawyers would then file suits to extend the deadline which accepted applicants faced with 9/11 effects. In 2015, an update to the act provided additional funding to make more money available to first responders and survivors who are still suffering health effects from the 9/11 attacks.

Other programs were established, but they have since been incorporated into a single World Trade Center Health Program. This program monitors over 14,000 registered people who have developed illnesses from the dust and debris of the 9/11 attacks. This program has listed dozens of diseases, disabilities, and conditions, including various types of cancer, that are covered.