The Ticking Asbestos Time Bomb from the 9/11 Towers’ Collapse

Inhalation of asbestos fibers in the resulting dust cloud may turn deadly for some first responders.

It is a moment frozen in time. Every American remembers where they were when they heard about the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. But for those rescue workers, firefighters, paramedics, construction workers, debris haulers, law enforcement and other first responders who rushed in to help those in peril and then clean up the site, that moment will haunt them and their loved ones for decades.

Tragically, they worked unprotected in a cloud of dust that contained many toxins from the pulverized construction materials. One major element in that cloud was asbestos, which after being breathed in can remain in the body like a time bomb for decades and then cause potentially fatal mesothelioma, lung and other types of cancer, asbestosis and other physical problems.

According to The New York Times, the towers had asbestos-containing fireproofing sprayed on surfaces throughout. Because of the airborne asbestos fibers released in the collapse, the National Cancer Institute finds WTC cleanup and emergency workers at risk of asbestos-related health problems. Residents and civilians who were in the immediate area, including children in schools, are also at risk.

Asbestos Nation reports sobering findings from various sources:

  • 1,000 tons of asbestos were used in the towers' construction.
  • Seven of ten 9/11 rescue and wreckage workers developed new or worsened lung problems in 2006.
  • Rescue and recovery workers had a 20 percent higher cancer incidence than the general population in 2010.

While 9/11 was an example of massive, violent and uncontrolled building destruction, every day in America when construction workers, demolition workers, firefighters and others work in and around buildings that are being dismantled or destroyed in some way, the risk that construction materials contain asbestos is always there. Although some of these activities are regulated, required safety procedures are not always followed and the damage to those materials could loosen and release deadly asbestos fibers into the air.

At the time of this writing, we observe the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that passed earlier this month. Ironically, Congress is debating the reauthorization of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, funding for which will expire at the end of September 2015 unless it is extended. The law provides medical benefits to many thousands of first responders. A significant advocacy effort is underway to permanently extend the program throughout the lives of all those who served us at the site.