Disaster often demands an immediate response from emergency units and sometimes civilians. During an emergency, people rarely consider the environmental safety of their surroundings when attending to victims. However, this can lead to health risks for volunteer rescuers and first responders. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, victims, witnesses and first responders were exposed to hazardous substances, including asbestos.
Asbestos in the Twin Towers
Asbestos is a naturally occurring, carcinogenic mineral. For decades, companies added asbestos to construction materials and other products to protect against fire and heat. Asbestos was used in the construction of the World Trade Center complex.
When the twin towers fell on September 11, 2001, asbestos fibers were released into the air. Many of the victims and first responders who inhaled the asbestos fibers later developed respiratory illnesses, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
9/11 Asbestos Victims
Here are just a few stories of individuals who were exposed to asbestos and other harmful airborne substances on September 11, 2001:
David Miller was a member of the New York Army National Guard when the incident happened. He spent two weeks at Ground Zero following the attacks.
In 2005, just three and a half years after being exposed to asbestos at Ground Zero, Miller was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Despite his diagnosis, Miller was a vocal advocate for government assistance to benefit 9/11 victims and first responders.
Sean Callan, a stone mason, worked several blocks from the World Trade Center. In the aftermath of the attacks, he assisted fleeing workers, steering them to a secure site. Later, Callan volunteered at Ground Zero for 31 days.
Two years later, Callan was diagnosed with mesothelioma, most likely related to asbestos exposure at Ground Zero.
Ernie Vallebuona, a former NYPD detective, joined other police officers and emergency workers to help at Ground Zero following the attacks. Vallebuona was later diagnosed with lymphoma. His partner was also diagnosed with a respiratory condition that doctors worry will lead to mesothelioma in the future.
Legislative Information and Programs for 9/11 Victims
Numerous victims who developed 9/11 asbestos-related cancers and illnesses have asked for assistance from the government. In many cases, they were initially denied help.
However, on January 2, 2011, President Obama signed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. The new law was created in honor of James Zadroga, the first NYPD officer to die of a post-9/11 illness.
The new law created a compensation program to help first responders of the World Trade Center attacks. In 2015, an update to the act provided additional funding to first responders who are still suffering health effects from the 9/11 attacks. Many of these individuals face illnesses that take years to present. For example, mesothelioma may take decades to present symptoms.
Other ancillary programs were also established to help victims and first responders. Most of these other programs have since been incorporated into a single World Trade Center Health Program. This program monitors more than 14,000 registered people who have developed illnesses from the dust and debris of the 9/11 attacks. This program covers dozens of diseases, disabilities and conditions, including various types of cancer.
Remembering 9/11 Victims Each Year
Every September, we honor the men and women who died because of their sacrifices on September 11, 2001, and during clean-up efforts in the aftermath of the attacks. We honor those brave individuals still battling the health effects of 9/11. These heroes risked their health, and in some cases, their lives to protect others in the face of a terrorist attack. For their continued sacrifices, we remain truly grateful.