Asbestos: Danger in the Dust

Dust WTC
As the ‘war on terror’ wages on, the devastating and traumatic effects of the attacks that took place on September 11, 2001 continue to unravel.  Along with thousands of lives, innumerable aspirations crumbled to dust with the fallen World Trade Center towers—a disturbing loss that cannot be estimated or calculated.  However, what can be calculated is the rising number of individuals suffering from discomforting health problems who were exposed to the toxic dust cloud that resulted from the attacks.

This dust cloud contained more than 2,500 contaminants and infiltrated the city.  Reaching as far as New Jersey, the toxic dust was composed of harmful elements such as glass, construction debris, and poisonous compounds including lead, mercury, and asbestos.  Individuals who helped with the cleanup and those living and working near the WTC have been greatly affected by the contaminated dust.  Many individuals who came in contact with the dust are experiencing alarming health issues, ranging from a severe cough to different forms of cancer, the most common being lung cancer.

A lead researcher with the New York State Department of Health released the preliminary findings of a study to the New York Post on January 6, 2008.  The study found at least 204 rescue & recovery workers and volunteers have died since 9/11, becoming victim to various cancers and disorders.  The Post reported that a total of 98 fatalities have been confirmed with death certificates, and research shows 77 persons died of illnesses, including 55 deaths caused by lung and other cancers.

The most common health issues facing those affected by the WTC destruction involve respiratory ailments and lung cancer.  In April 2006, the Centers for Disease Control reported a shocking 62% of individuals caught in the toxic dust cloud are suffering with respiratory problems.  In addition, 46% of those living or working near the WTC (who avoided the dust cloud) have reported consistent respiratory problems.

That same month, an honorary keepsake saved by a WTC volunteer emerged and illuminated a plausible leading cause to the troublesome lung ailments.  Yehuda Kaploun, a community liaison who spent about 48 hours at Ground Zero volunteering immediately after the attacks, placed the dress shirt he wore in a plastic bag as a keepsake to honor the lives lost.  Kaploun submitted the shirt to authorities with the hope that scientific results of contamination would assist volunteers in attaining medical support for the diseases they have developed, or are likely to develop.

Results from testing revealed the shirt is contaminated with highly toxic levels of chrysotile asbestos, otherwise known as white asbestos.  Astonishingly, contamination was 93,000 times higher than the average amount found in US cities.  This figure is also higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) reports of the most contaminated building after 9/11.

The volunteer’s shirt was also proven to be contaminated with mercury, barium, zinc, chromium, antimony, cobalt, copper, lead, and molybdenum.  For nearly four months, heavy metals like these burned in the aftermath of the attacks.
Considering these remarkable levels of asbestos and various other contaminants, it’s no wonder a myriad of individuals associated with the aftermath are tormented with respiratory problems and lung cancer.  But how could such high levels of asbestos be recorded when the EPA banned and ordered a phase out of asbestos in 1989?

Dreamed up in the mid-1940s and completed in 1977, the WTC was originally designed to utilize 5,000 tons of asbestos-containing fireproofing on the first 40 floors of the buildings.  Anticipating a ban on the use of asbestos in construction in New York, the builders stopped using the material after reaching the 40th floor on the north tower.  Not long after the attacks, a spokesperson from the New York Port Authority stated more than half of the asbestos-containing material was later replaced.

Despite these preventative measures, an estimated 2,000 tons of asbestos was released into the air in the form of fine powder.  Microscopic asbestos compounds are easily inhaled, and due to its atomic structure, the compound readily adheres to any substance.  Once absorbed into the body, asbestos fastens to the inner lining of the lungs, heart and stomach, and cannot be broken down or expelled by the body. Exposure to asbestos could potentially result in a variety of caustic and deadly illnesses, such as asbestosis and lung cancer.  Additionally, contact with asbestos over time can also lead to a very rare form of cancer, known as mesothelioma.

A form of cancer that develops slowly, mesothelioma attacks the mesothelial cells that form the protective membranous linings that surround the body’s organs and line body cavities such as the abdomen.  The most common forms of mesothelioma are pleural mesothelioma (outer lining of the lungs and chest cavity), peritoneal mesothelioma (lining of the abdominal cavity), and pericardial mesothelioma (a sac that surrounds the heart).  Unfortunately, every form of mesothelioma (except the benign form) is most likely to end in fatality, as beating the disease is exceptionally rare.

Due to the commonality of symptoms, mesothelioma is extremely difficult to diagnose in its early stages.  By the time an individual is diagnosed with mesothelioma, the cancer is typically in its late stages and is highly resistant to all forms of treatment.  Currently, the only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos, and a person’s risk for developing this cancer increases with the amount of exposure.

Elusive and torpid, the disease usually remains dormant for 20 to 50 years before symptoms arise.  Symptoms of this cancer are comparatively non-specific to many other diseases, and are often quite similar to symptoms of other conditions.  For example, pleural mesothelioma, the most common form of the cancer, exhibits symptoms ranging from a persistent cough to night sweats or fever.  These early warning signs are often misdiagnosed as pneumonia or influenza, which undoubtedly contributes to late diagnosis and allows the cancer to develop and spread unnoticed.

On average, nearly 10,000 individuals living within the United States die annually due to asbestos-related diseases, such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis.  If you or anyone you know was near the WTC on 9/11, or you live or work near the site, you are advised to ardently monitor your health and seek guidance from a physician.

For those who have yet to seek but need medical attention, it is not too late to contact The World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program.  This program was developed to provide free and confidential monitoring examinations to workers and volunteers who responded to the WTC attacks.  Those who participate in the program will receive free medical examinations for the next five years at regular intervals to monitor their health.  The program’s website offers more information on how to sign up and where to go for examinations. For more information on asbestos, its uses and harmful health effects, please visit the Asbestos and Mesotheliom Center.