Science and Health

17 Years After 9/11, Thousands Are Still Sick From Its Toxic Dust

Jet fuel, heavy metals, benzene, and more. The toxic components in dust 9/11 first responders & survivors inhaled continues to cause health problems.

17 Years After 9/11, Thousands Are Still Sick From Its Toxic Dust
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It’s been 17 years since the World Trade Center attacks, but first responders and community members still face health issues from breathing in toxic dust found around Ground Zero, according to the CDC. 

"There was combustion of jet fuel. There were the combustion products from the buildings themselves: the plastics, the metals, wood, insulation, fluorescent lights, computers, video monitors, and then all the particulate matter that resulted from that," said David Prezant, Chief Medical Officer at the Office of Medical Affairs for the Fire Department of the City of New York. "You had organic pollutants, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, PCBs, dioxin, benzene, heavy metals, lead, and mercury."

In 2018 alone, more than four thousand people enrolled in the CDC's WTC Health Program, which tracks and provides healthcare for 9/11 first responders and survivors. Many have compounding health issues: To date, more than thirty thousand first responders and survivors are getting treatment for at least two health conditions. 

The most common health issues for the program include asthma and nasal inflammation. But exposure to ground zero dust has also been associated with 50 different cancers. 

Doctors are still learning exactly how being around the World Trade Center site impacts the risk of developing cancer. But the program has already linked nearly 10,000 cancer cases to 9/11. Just last week, the news came of at least 15 men, who were in the vicinity of Ground Zero after the attacks, developed breast cancer. This is rare — men make up a minuscule one percent of all breast cancer patients. 

And it’s not just the first responders suffering health effects. The CDC says the toxic dust also affected a wide area around the site, so those who weren't nearby may still have gotten sick. Mount Sinai Medical Center estimates some 400,000 people had reasonable exposure, yet only 16,653 have enrolled in the CDC's WTC program. 

"People who worked in the nearby area, and/or people who were street vendors, as well as local residents who lived in the surrounding areas.  There were also many students and teachers in the surrounding area, as there is a nursery school, an elementary school, middle and high schools, and colleges," said Joan Reibman with the CDC. 

In the meantime, the research continues. Mt. Sinai Medical Center, for example, has eleven studies going right now on a variety of health ramifications that 9/11 first responders and survivors face. Rutgers University, Bellevue Hospital, and New York's Fire Department also have programs to study health effects, too.