One of the most enduring legacies of 9/11 is, unfortunately, one of the least talked about. It’s now been 15 years since the World Trade Center collapsed, and although there’s an impressive new building standing in its place, the repercussions of that day continue to affect the citizens of New York — and not just in a symbolic or psychological kind of way. The very health and wellbeing of many New Yorkers is still at stake, even as few seem interested in doing anything about it.
After the towers collapsed in 2001, it took weeks to complete a full tally of the dead. The official figure currently stands at 2,606 fatalities in the 2 towers, with an additional 400 or so killed in the Pentagon and on the 4 hijacked planes.
These numbers are no doubt staggering. However, few people realize that in the 15 years since 9/11, an additional 1,400 people have died from causes that are directly attributable to the attacks themselves — and that figure continues to rise every day. In many ways, the tragedy of September 11th is ongoing.
450 Hours at Ground Zero
When the World Trade Center towers fell, giant plumes of dust and debris were scattered about lower Manhattan, coating the island and its inhabitants with lethal smoke, sediment, and construction toxins. Few at the time realized the extent of the threat — how many of those toxins were carcinogenic and life-threatening — but they toiled on anyway, heroically lifting survivors from the rubble of Ground Zero, often without any safety equipment or protocols.
In 2006, one of those heroes, an NYPD officer named James Zadroga, died of a respiratory illness that was almost certainly caused by exposure to the toxic dust suspended over Ground Zero.
Zadroga had spent some 450 hours participating in the recovery efforts. During that time, his lungs were exposed to microscopic shards of fiberglass, pulverized concrete, and a host of unknown chemicals and carcinogens, all of which conspired to plague this otherwise healthy New Yorker with a fatal respiratory illness. His untimely death, at the age of 34, was the first 1 directly linked to exposure to harmful substances at Ground Zero.
The Zadroga Act
Had anyone known that the cloud produced by the collapse of the World Trade Center would prove nearly as deadly as the collapse itself, they might have taken greater efforts to protect those who were working at Ground Zero. But, quite understandably, it was not the most immediate concern for most people. There were lives in need of saving.
It was not until late 2006 that New York state passed legislation to expand compensation and benefits to Ground Zero workers and first responders who have died or are dying from cancer and respiratory diseases. However, some believed at the time that the bill did not go far enough, and it’s increasingly clear that they were right.
Because most forms of cancer have a long latency period, it was not entirely apparent in 2006 just how pervasive 9/11-related cancer diagnoses would be, and, accordingly, it was not apparent how and when state resources should be allocated. In many ways, it still isn’t. Some experts believe it may be 15 to 20 years before we have a solid idea of just how toxic the dust from Ground Zero actually was. This is especially true for cases of mesothelioma, which is caused by exposure to asbestos (a highly prevalent toxin at Ground Zero) and may take between 20 to 50 years to show itself.
The effort to supplant the state bill with a more robust federal program was a long and arduous one. It wasn’t until late 2010 that Congress passed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, a measure that would provide extensive healthcare coverage to all 9/11 first responders, as well as survivors and recovery workers.
The bill was signed by President Obama in early 2011, but only after months of legislative foot-dragging by congressional Republicans. The GOP had originally filibustered the bill, complaining about how to responsibly pay for it. It took the platform of late-night television to move the bill in the right direction. In fact, it was none other than comedian Jon Stewart who was credited with bringing attention to the issue, using his show to cultivate the critical mass of support needed to pass the measure. Even the White House lauded the former host of The Daily Show as being the key voice in driving the bill through Congress.
But even then, just a decade after 9/11, the full picture of the long-term health impact of the attacks had not yet been revealed. By 2013, it was estimated that at least 1,400 first responders had died as a result of illnesses directly caused by exposure to toxic dust and debris at Ground Zero, and nearly as many were suffering from cancer.
The silver lining in all this has been the Zadroga Act. While medical professionals in New York have had to deal with a surge in cancer diagnoses, the resources to handle such cases are adequately funded and available. One oncology nurse at a medical clinic in Queens told the New York Daily News in 2013, “The good news is that with the new [Zadroga] federal funding, I get what I need when I need it for our patients. Their biopsies and scans are turned around in a week. Cancer trumps everything.”
But it’s never wise to put your faith in Congress. In September of last year, the Republican-controlled congress allowed the Zadroga Act to expire, citing the usual concerns about how to pay for it. While the reauthorization would eventually pass in December, it took more public shaming at the hands of Jon Stewart — coming out of the woodworks of his retirement — to get Congress to do the right thing. To the relief of everyone’s faith in humanity, the bill’s coverage was extended to 75 years.
An Ongoing Catastrophe
The timing of the Zadroga Act’s extension could not have been more critical. While those suffering from illnesses caused by the collapse of the World Trade Center may be covered under the Zadroga Act, the number and variety of those illnesses continues to soar, and some worry we’ve yet to see the worst of it.
Now, more than 15 years after 9/11, more than 70,000 people have enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program, and more than 30 percent of those patients are currently being treated for conditions specifically caused by exposure to the toxic air at Ground Zero.
David Howley, a retired NYPD officer who spent months working at Ground Zero, told the New York Daily News: “Nobody that was down there got spared. If you didn’t get cancer, you have breathing trouble, or you have blood trouble or sinus troubles. Nobody got out of there unscathed.”
For the time being, it looks as if the legacy of 9/11 will continue to afflict New Yorkers, and may even get worse in the coming years. The Zadroga Act will certainly help alleviate some of that burden, and a new proposal from Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) may go a step further. The senator from New York is proposing the creation of a volunteer registry that would help doctors track and treat firefighters suffering from cancer — and not just 9/11 first responders and Ground Zero workers. The national database would aim to leverage care for all firefighters, who are disproportionately exposed to toxins like asbestos, fiberglass, mercury, and other carcinogenic building materials.
The proposal is especially important for sufferers of malignant mesothelioma, a particularly nasty form of cancer that is caused by exposure to asbestos. A recent study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found firefighters in the U.S. suffer from mesothelioma at a rate 2 times that of the general population.
This may prove doubly important in coming years; because mesothelioma has such a long latency period (sometimes several decades), the impact of asbestos at Ground Zero, which is all but certain, still hasn’t fully revealed itself. According to one estimate by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 300 to 400 tons of asbestos fibers were used to build the World Trade Center. In order to become carcinogenic, asbestos must be pulverized or pressed into a crystalline dust. Unfortunately, it’s safe to say that giant plume of smoke that covered lower Manhattan on September 11th did exactly that.