Entries in First Responders (2)


How Toxic Was the 9/11 Dust Cloud?

Anthony Correia/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Among the lasting images of 9/11 are those of nearly everyone and everything in the immediate vicinity of the World Trade Center covered in thick dust.

As that dust settled, health officials and scientists sought to figure out what was in it, and what the health effects of it could be.

"The dust is something we had never seen before," said Paul Lioy, director of exposure science at Rutgers University and UMDNJ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and author of Dust: The Inside Story of its Role in the September 11th Aftermath.  "It was caused by the collapse and disintegration of two very large structures."

The federal government and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey asked Lioy to collect and analyze samples of the dust and what the possible health consequences could be.  Analysis showed that the substances in the dust included cement, gypsum, asbestos, glass fibers, calcium carbonate, lead and other metal particles.

The pH of the dust was very high, meaning it was highly alkaline.

"That means it's extremely caustic and would be like inhaling powdered lye or Drano," said Dr. Philip Landrigan, dean for global health at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

The toxicity of the dust had a significant impact on the health of many first responders who were present, and those effects were especially severe among people exposed to the dust on the first day and for an extended period of time.  Research done at Mount Sinai in 2009 found that about eight percent of men and women who helped with rescue and recovery, or took part in other work at the site, reported asthma attacks.  Normally, only about four percent of the population suffers from asthma.

The New York City Department of Health said asthma risk was also increased for people who lived and worked in lower Manhattan after 9/11.

Lead and other heavy metals can be toxic to the brain, and gypsum, a component of drywall, can cause respiratory problems if it's inhaled over a prolonged period of time.  But Landrigan said two of the substances -- cement dust and asbestos -- are the most harmful.

Cement dust made up about two thirds of the overall dust, which contributed to its high alkalinity.  The effects of asbestos wouldn't be felt right away, but could become evident in the next few years.

"Asbestos is a human carcinogen," Landrigan explained.  "It causes lung cancer, laryngeal cancers and malignant mesothelioma, and these typically develop anywhere from 10 to 30 years after exposure."

While the dust was highly toxic, Lioy said it's impossible to say which specific substances contributed to the health problems since it was a mixture of things and the effects of gases couldn't be taken into account.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


9/11 First Responders Plagued by Health Problems from Toxic Dust and Debris

DOUG KANTER/AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- For many of the nearly 50,000 9/11 first responders, the wounds of the Twin Tower attacks are far from healing. According to two studies published Thursday in the British journal Lancet, these rescue workers continue to struggle with respiratory illness, depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and many of them may be at increased risk for developing a number of cancers.

In the months following 9/11, firefighter Kenny Specht, 43, spent every day at the site, navigating the rubble in hopes of at first rescuing people, and later recovering the bodies of those crushed when the towers fell. Though he and his fellow rescue workers were picking through rubble littered with asbestos, mercury, crushed florescent light bulbs and other known toxins, they were outfitted with only their normal uniform to protect them from potential contaminants.

"They gave us paper masks and overalls, like you'd see in home improvement shows. They let us go back to our homes every day with our contaminated gear," Specht says.

It wasn't until 2006 that he started to experience health problems. At first it was gastrointestinal issues that required him to have his gallbladder removed, but in 2007 a CAT scan following an injury on the job revealed thyroid cancer.

Though the string of cancer cases among New York firefighters who worked at 9/11 seemed like a sad coincidence when Specht was diagnosed, this Levittown, N.Y., man is now part of a trend that researchers are just beginning to understand: Those who worked at the WTC site seem to be at increased risk of cancer, especially thyroid cancer, melanoma and lymphoma. According to a study released of nearly 10,000 New York firefighters (half of whom worked at the WTC site), those from the site are 32 percent more likely to have cancer.

"I've been to 54 funerals of firefighters since 9/11 and 52 of them are cancer-related," says John Feal, a former firefighter and founder of the FealGood Foundation, an advocacy group seeking medical coverage and compensation for first responders of 9/11.

The collapse of the Twin Towers contaminated the nearby air with particles of glass, asbestos, cement, lead and other toxins. It is thought that exposure to this dust through the lungs and skin has contributed to the asthma, gastrointestinal problems, and possibly the increased cancer risk experienced by rescue workers, especially those who were on the site immediately after the attack, when the cloud of debris dust was its thickest.

"Because those responding in the first hours were stuck in the dust cloud, these were the people with the highest rate of every disease we tracked," says Dr. Philip Landrigan, dean of Global Health at Mount Sinai School of medicine and senior researcher of one of Thursday's studies. The study, which looked at medical and mental health outcomes for about 30,000 rescue workers involved in 9/11 aid work, found that nearly a third of these workers have developed asthma and between 10 and 30 percent still suffer from persistent medical disorders, including gastro-esophageal reflux, depression and PTSD, even nine years after they were exposed to the WTC site.

Though researchers expected to see some persistence in medical and mental health symptoms for these workers, Landrigan says the extent to which they are still suffering was an "unwelcome surprise."

"We're still seeing 75 to 100 new patients each month, even after all these years," he says. Landrigan urges those who worked at the WTC to seek examination at one of New York City's WTC Centers for Excellence -- hospitals that provide specialized testing and treatment for those with physical and mental health conditions associated with 9/11.

Thanks to the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, signed into law by President Obama in January, rescue workers can receive financial assistance for health problems such as those identified in Landrigan's study. At this time, however, the act does not cover cancer, as a federal analysis decided there was not enough evidence to say that 9/11 work contributed to cancer risk at that time.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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