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Asbestos was used in the North Tower of the World Trade Center to insulate and support the steel beam framework. During the 9/11 attack, the World Trade Center released a large dust cloud containing asbestos and other toxins. First responders, Manhattan residents, construction workers and many more faced potential exposure. According to statistics, the number of first responders facing 9/11 illnesses is expected to surpass the number of victims who died from the attack.


01. Asbestos in the WTC

Was There Asbestos in the World Trade Center?

The World Trade Center included seven buildings in Lower Manhattan. The twin towers were considered the two main buildings of the World Trade Center complex, referred to as the North Tower and the South Tower.

When Was the World Trade Center Built?

Construction of the twin towers began in 1968. The first tenants moved into the North Tower in 1970 and into the South Tower in 1973.

Early construction of the twin towers used asbestos. Contractors used asbestos materials in the lower floors of the North Tower, before the dangers of asbestos exposure became widely recognized in the early 1970s. In early April 1970, the New York City Department of Air Resources established asbestos spray insulation regulations.

Contractors using asbestos insulation in the twin towers failed to comply with these regulations. As a result, the Department ordered contractors to stop all asbestos use in the World Trade Center.

The upper levels of the North Tower and the entirety of the South Tower contained asbestos alternatives.

Why Was There Asbestos in the Twin Towers?

Asbestos was used in the twin towers mainly for insulation. The mineral also offered strength, fire resistance and heat resistance to the tower’s infrastructure.

Contractors applied spray insulation to the steel beams in the lower levels of the North Tower for strength and fireproofing. The steel and concrete framework held up the towers, supporting elevator shafts and stairwells.

In addition to insulation, other suspected uses of asbestos-containing products include cement, flooring and foam board.

How Much Asbestos Was in the World Trade Center?

The North Tower contained an estimated 300 – 400 tons of asbestos. The twin towers also contained many contaminants. In total, the buildings were constructed with 424,000 tons of concrete and 485,000 tons of other materials.

Was Asbestos Removed from the World Trade Center?

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey instated regulations for asbestos use and abatement in 1971. Early estimates of asbestos abatement from the World Trade Center totaled close to $1 billion.

In the mid-1980s, Port Authority undertook an extensive asbestos-removal program to remove the mineral from the World Trade Center. Because asbestos was used in the framework of the buildings, removal was difficult and expensive.

Information regarding asbestos abatement from the twin towers is limited. Some reports indicate the program was able to remove some of the asbestos. However, testing of 9/11 dust and rubble confirms much of the mineral still remained.

02. Asbestos Exposure

The Twin Towers and Asbestos Exposure

What Was in the World Trade Center Dust Cloud?*
  • Asbestos
  • Benzene
  • Calcium carbonate
  • Concrete dust
  • Dioxin
  • Glass fibers
  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Other metals
  • Other high-pH chemicals
  • Silica

On September 11, 2001, an attack on the World Trade Center caused the twin towers to collapse. Fires from the twin towers later caused 7 World Trade Center (another building in the World Trade Center complex) to collapse. The area where the twin towers fell is referred to as Ground Zero.

During the attack, concrete and other components of the twin towers were almost completely pulverized, releasing a toxic dust cloud. The cloud contained thousands of contaminants, including asbestos.

*Based on samples gathered by the Environmental Protection Agency

9/11 Asbestos Exposure

Dust from the attack on the twin towers spread across Lower Manhattan.

How Far Did the Dust Cloud Travel on 9/11?

Low levels of dust were found as far as the Empire State Building, almost three miles away. The exact distance remains unclear. Individuals have shared varied reports of encountering small amounts of debris across the city.

The Victims Compensation Fund maps out a smaller exposure zone when determining eligibility for financial help.

9/11 Victims Compensation Fund Map

Those in close and distant proximity to the attacks faced potential asbestos exposure.

Who Was at Risk of 9/11 Asbestos Exposure?

  • Communications recovery workers
  • Construction workers
  • Educators and students
  • Employees in nearby buildings
  • First responders
  • Health professionals
  • Indoor cleanup crews
  • New York City residents
  • Outdoor cleanup crews
  • Passersby in the area
  • Volunteers
  • World Trade Center employees

The EPA’s Response to 9/11 and Asbestos

At first, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stated the Manhattan air was, “safe to breathe.” However, the EPA later concluded it did not have the data to back this claim. The agency conducted extensive testing of airborne toxins and settled dust to determine the presence of asbestos fibers and other particles.

In response to the 9/11 attacks and asbestos, the EPA referenced National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollution (NESHAP) regulations. NESHAP states material containing at least 1% asbestos (by volume) is asbestos-containing material.

Once deemed asbestos-containing, the material is then subject to EPA NESHAP regulations. Bulk dust and ambient air samples were collected from September 11 to September 18, 2011. More than 25% of the samples contained levels of asbestos higher than 1%.

9/11 Asbestos Handling and Safety Concerns
  • Demolition and renovation asbestos regulations were not strictly followed during the World Trade Center cleanup.
  • The public received insufficient warnings and information about air quality and safety measures following the attack.
  • There was a lack of indoor air testing and verification to ensure safe breathing conditions.
  • EPA officials did not have health benchmarks in place for asbestos and similar pollutants. In other words, there were no standards for what levels of contaminants in the air were “safe” to breathe.
  • The EPA could not provide an accurate assessment of the health risk from 9/11 asbestos due to a lack of asbestos testing methods.
  • The public wanted more information about the risks associated with asbestos after 9/11.

In addition to the immediate risks of 9/11, concerns arose about asbestos dust. Dust entered HVAC systems of nearby schools, buildings and residences. Thick layers of dust coated indoor areas and filled ventilation systems.

The EPA and New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) issued warnings in regards to indoor air quality safety. NYCDEP gave building owners a “Clean-up of Asbestos Containing Material” notice. The notice told owners to assume the dust contained asbestos. It also advised owners to follow NYCDEP Asbestos Abatement Program procedures for safe asbestos handling and disposal.

03. Asbestos Health Risks

World Trade Center Asbestos Health Risks

Public health officials note more than 90,000 individuals were exposed to toxins from the attack. Every time a piece of rubble was disturbed, small clouds of dust and ash became airborne. Many individuals at the scene were not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and inhaled dangerous particles.

A series of respiratory illnesses, cancers and other health concerns have emerged as victims seek medical treatment as a result of time spent at Ground Zero.

What Are 9/11 Cancers?
  • Hematopoietic cancer
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)-related cancers
  • Leukemia
  • Lung cancer
  • Lymphatic cancer
  • Mesothelioma
  • Myeloma
  • Oropharyngeal cancers
  • Other malignant neoplasms
  • Prostate cancer
  • Thyroid cancer
Other 9/11-Related Illnesses
  • Asbestosis
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Chronic respiratory disorders
  • Depression
  • Hearing loss
  • Lung disease
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Sarcoidosis

Some conditions take years to develop. As a result, some victims are only just beginning to experience symptoms of asbestos exposure.

First Responders and 9/11 Illnesses

A growing number of 9/11 first responders face cancer, respiratory illnesses and other health problems. First responders include: paramedics, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), police officers, firefighters, rescue teams, members of the military and other trained professionals.

The 9/11 rescue workers spent many hours at the heart of Ground Zero, breathing in carcinogens from the dust. The lack of PPE increased their risk of inhaling harmful toxins with potential long-lasting health impacts.

A reported 23 members of the NYPD died in the World Trade Center terrorist attack in September 2001. By September 2019, a reported 241 members of the NYPD died from related illnesses.

The rising number of individuals facing diagnoses as a result of the attacks led to the creation of the World Trade Center Health Program (WTC Health Program). As of December 2019, 77,752 first responders enrolled in the program to receive treatment for a 9/11-related illness. Enrollees include 59,890 general responders, 16,997 New York City Fire Department responders and 865 Pentagon/Shanksville responders.

9/11 and Mesothelioma

Malignant mesothelioma is a 9/11 cancer of particular concern due to the high levels of asbestos released during the attack. Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma.

The number of mesothelioma cases stemming from the collapse of the twin towers is largely unknown. Mesothelioma has a long latency period. As a result, the cancer may take 10 – 50 years to develop. As more time passes since 9/11, medical professionals expect the number of mesothelioma diagnoses to grow.

Nick Ursta, 52, passed away from pleural mesothelioma in November 2019. This was the first case of pleural mesothelioma related to 9/11. Ursta was an EMT who assisted with recovery at Ground Zero the day after the attacks.

The type of asbestos used in the World Trade Center is closely tied to mesothelioma. Short chrysotile fibers were the most common type of asbestos found in the 9/11 dust. This is the most common type of asbestos found in diseased mesothelioma tissue.

With any asbestos type, there is no safe level of exposure. However, researchers note first responders completely enveloped in the World Trade Center dust and cleanup crews are most at risk of mesothelioma cancer.

Manhattan residents indirectly impacted by the attacks are also at risk of developing mesothelioma, though their risk is lower. Higher quantities of asbestos and long-term exposure increase the risk of developing mesothelioma cancer.

What Can You Do If You Were Exposed to 9/11 Dust?

Individuals exposed to asbestos cannot eliminate their risk of developing mesothelioma. However, there are safety measures individuals can take to improve their chances of early detection.

Victims of exposure should:

  • Notify their physician of their potential asbestos exposure
  • Document the time and suspected type of exposure
  • Understand asbestos symptoms and potential asbestos-related conditions
  • Notify their doctor immediately should any symptoms present
  • Maintain frequent checkups to improve the chances of early detection
04. Treatment Resources

Treatment Resources for 9/11 Victims

Individuals involved in the attack on the World Trade Center may be eligible for treatment benefits. Some cancer centers in New York City have programs designed specifically for victims and first responders. For example, Mount Sinai Medical Center offers help through the WTC Health Program.

The World Trade Center Health Program

The WTC Health Program was set up to help those suffering from 9/11-related conditions. The WTC Health Program offers specialized services to 9/11 victims. Support services include:

  • Health monitoring
  • Treatment
  • Mental health services
  • Benefits counseling

There are four member types eligible to enroll in the program: FDNY responders, general responders, NYC survivors and Pentagon/Shanksville, Pennsylvania responders.

The WTC Health Program is administered by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH). NIOSH is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The WTC Health Program has many Clinical Centers of Excellence throughout New York City, some of which are specific to responders and survivors.

Victims can apply through the WTC Health Program website. The program covers a variety of illnesses and cancers. Coverage includes all types of mesothelioma.

The WTC Health Program and World Trade Center Health Registry gather statistics around enrollees. These findings are shared with the public, health researchers and medical professionals to help guide a better understanding of 9/11 impacts and the need for support services.

05. Compensation for Victims

Compensation for 9/11 Asbestos Victims

Treatment for conditions such as malignant mesothelioma can be costly. Victims may be able to receive compensation to help cover medical bills and other fees associated with their diagnosis.

9/11 Victims Compensation Fund

Congress established the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) to serve two main purposes:

  • Protect airlines from litigation related to the 9/11 attacks
  • Financially compensate victims who suffer from a 9/11-related injury or loved ones who have lost a family member from a 9/11-related injury

Victims filing a claim could not sue airlines or other parties related to the 9/11 attacks. The fund ran from 2001 to 2004. Around $7 billion was paid out to more than 5,000 families. Families who suffered a loss of a loved one and individuals injured during the attack received compensation.

Continuation of the VCF and WTC Health Program
  • January 2011: President Obama signed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010. This act reestablished the VCF fund. The act funded an additional $2.8 billion and created the WTC Health Program.
  • December 2015: President Obama passed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act. The act funded an additional $4.6 billion to the VCF and reauthorized the WTC Health Program through 2090.
  • July 2019: President Donald Trump signed the Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act. The act made the VCF permanent and authorized $10.2 billion for claims through 2090.

In 2019, the VCF awarded victims $1,218,499,150. This contributes to a total of $5,964,774,722 awarded by the VCF since its creation.

Victims and family members may have the right to file a claim. Many individuals seek help from an experienced attorney to understand their compensation options and the claim filing process. Individuals suffering from an asbestos-related illness may also seek help from an asbestos attorney, experienced in handling cases related to exposure. Claims require certain documentation and deadlines, so individuals should seek help as soon as possible.

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