At the time of the groundbreaking for the twin towers’ construction in 1966, alarms were already being raised in the medical community and elsewhere about the dangers of asbestos. An article published in the New York Times in March 1966 reported the establishment of a new health laboratory at Mount Sinai Hospital designated to investigate asbestos dust as a serious hazard.
The World Trade Center towers were full of asbestos when they were constructed, all of which came raining down on an unsuspecting public that unspeakably heart wrenching day in 2001. Incorporated into a wide variety of industrial and commercial building products because of its superior resistance to fire, heat, sound and solvents, asbestos fibers were ubiquitous in the manufacture of cement boards, insulation, sprayed-on fireproofing, floor and ceiling tile and even the textured plaster coatings used on the interior walls of the twin towers.
As construction of the World Trade Center neared conclusion in 1970, the toxicity of asbestos could no longer be denied. The New York City Department of Air Resources ordered the builders to stop spraying asbestos fireproofing on the steel trusses in anticipation of a forthcoming ban. By then forty floors of the north tower had already been covered with asbestos. Despite their innovative exterior steel column design and the use of modular wall sections which improved quality control and added strength, the twin towers were reduced to pulverized rubble when the buildings collapsed as a result of the airplane strikes, releasing an estimated 400 tons of asbestos into the air all over lower Manhattan.
As first responders and clean-up crews struggled in the aftermath to rescue survivors and clear the streets of rubble, they unwittingly breathed copious amounts of asbestos dust. Firefighters worked to extinguish blazes that continued to burn for five months following the terrorist attacks, no doubt spewing asbestos-laden smoke into the air all the while. A thick layer of grayish-white dust, likely filled with dozens of toxins including asbestos, settled into neighborhoods all over Manhattan. While it typically takes twenty years or more for mesothelioma to develop in individuals exposed to asbestos, several first responders who rushed into harm’s way to rescue victims at ground zero succumbed to mesothelioma less than five years later. New cases continue to be reported with alarming frequency.
This year, as we contemplate the catastrophic circumstances of September 11, 2001, let’s also take time to consider the tragic fate of those who stepped in to help in America’s time of need, and have lost or will lose their lives to mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases as a result. Their sacrifice is not yet over.