The 17th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks brings crushing news in its wake: that the number of people diagnosed with 9/11-related cancer has nearly reached 10,000.
This figure, released in August, came up in a recent Fox News interview with Jon Stewart, who made another of many appeals to the threats that 9/11 survivors still face. Among them, not just illness, but the fast-approaching expiry of their medical benefits.
It’s sad, but very few Americans fully understand survivors’ ongoing health concern. Most of us correlate 9/11 with the tragic loss of nearly 3,000 lives when hijackers flew commercial planes into New York’s Twin Towers. In reality, people are still dying. And soon enough, the number of people who have died from 9/11-related illnesses will total more than those who died on the day of the attacks and throughout the cleanup and rescue efforts.
This growing community of survivors is the focus of this year’s tribute. But let’s start with lighter news. What’s in store for 2018?
The What and the Why of 9/11/2018
Each 9/11 anniversary provides the opportunity to “recapture the spirit of unity and service that arose in the immediate aftermath of the attacks,” reads the 9/11 Memorial & Museum website.
Today is the day we come together for memorials in NYC, for example, like the Tribute in Light. Some of us also pay tribute with family and friends in our local communities and observe the famous minute of silence.
Each anniversary also brings new developments, even 17 years on. This year, for example:
- President Donald Trump will speak during the 17th Annual September 11 Observance at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania this morning. This much-anticipated address follows last year’s remarks about the bravery of first responders, losing “hundreds of friends,” and George W. Bush’s “failure to keep Americans safe.”
- The Independent yesterday published rare archive images of the aftermath.
- A once-teeming subway station destroyed in the attack finally reopened It’s 1 of the last features of the World Trade Center to reopen after $158 Million worth of repairs.
- DNA technology has just started to break ground in identifying and recovering the fallen. Only 60 percent of victims have been identified so far – in part due to difficulties recovering DNA samples and bone fragments – with more than 1,000 victims and 7,000 remains to go.
As always, it’s just as important to honor the men and women lost in the tragedy as it is to recognize surviving heroes’ sacrifices. But each year brings new sacrifices, too.
The ‘Moon Dust’ That Started It All
When it comes to chemical exposure in the workplace, occupational health specialists have little trouble calculating and mitigating the risks. But at Ground Zero on September 11, 2001, it was anyone’s guess what hazards people faced and when.
“No one has ever codified or captured all the stuff that was released from that pile,” said Dr. Michael Crane, medical director of the World Trade Center Health Program Clinical Center of Excellence at Mount Sinai. “It’s an unknown exposure.”
The 2-inch-thick “pile” – or “moon dust” as 1 physician described it – was our best evidence for exposure to a cocktail of deadly substances. Giant plumes of dust and debris settled to coat lower Manhattan in chemicals from burning fuel, chemicals from burning electronics, and pulverized building materials laced with toxins like asbestos, which is carcinogenic when disturbed. Every move sent more puffs of dust and smoke into the air. As they picked their way through the carnage with the sole purpose of recovering as many bodies as possible, few rescuers understood or even noticed this threat.
Over the next few months, survivors sought help for asthma and other respiratory diseases, which was to be expected after breathing in so many fumes and toxins. But it takes another several years, sometimes decades, for cancer to develop. That’s what’s happening now.
The State of the Forgotten Victims
The average age of a first responder who survived 9/11 is now about 55 – younger than the typical age for developing cancer, which ranges from 60 to 70 years old per cancer type. Yet compared to the general population, the rate of some cancers among first responders is up to 30 percent higher.
Among the most common are blood cancers, kidney cancer, and increasingly, mesothelioma, a lethal form of lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
As a result of these diseases, the death toll of NYPD members, FDNY firefighters, and other rescue and recovery workers keeps climbing. So does the often-overlooked death toll of bystanders, some of whom were children when first exposed to the toxic dust. Related diseases have been attributed to more than 2,000 deaths to-date, with more added to the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park in 2018 than in any previous year.
Sadly, there are more cases to come. The wide-ranging latency periods of various cancers – mesothelioma’s, for example, can be anywhere from 20 to 50 years – make it difficult to predict what will happen. Yet experts project that more people will have died from toxic exposure than killed on the day by the end of 2018.
Even so, says Dr. Ray Basri, professor of medicine at New York Medical College and the first physician at the scene that fateful day: “I don’t think we have reached 15 percent of the cancer we’re going to see. I really do think we’re in the very early stages.”
Here’s What We Need to Do
Fast forward to 2020, and the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act will be up for renewal. Advocacy groups fear they’ll face the same pushback they did 3 years ago.
On the other hand, much has improved since then. Health centers like Mount Sinai now offer more frequent screenings for first responders to help catch diseases quicker. Research, including a recent study of FDNY members, is helping to identify precursors to diseases and shape future treatment. It could even be invaluable in advancing cancer treatment in general.
But we’ll need much more research to understand rare diseases like mesothelioma. We’ll also need more funding to treat growing rates of sick responders. And research advancements, no matter how positive, will never rewrite the wrongs of the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
So, though today is the day you can and should pay respects to the fallen, we encourage you not to stop there. Focus on thanking and supporting the survivors you know. Consider joining an advocacy group. Spread the word about the sick and the dying. Above all, advocate for the healthcare our heroes unquestionably deserve as thanks for their bravery and service. It’s the least we can do.