Twenty years ago today, 2,977 Americans died in the terrorist attacks on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
In the years since, more than 2,000 first responders and Ground Zero workers have succumbed to various illnesses caused by the toxic dust and debris at the site.
In the storm of hostility directed toward the Middle East after the attacks, the plight of the survivors was to some degree overlooked, and to this day it is often unknown just how severe the health ramifications were after the attacks.
When the World Trade Center collapsed, it released a deadly brew of toxic dust and debris that hung like smog over Lower Manhattan for months. The dust, a blend of thousands of tons of pulverized concrete and around 2,500 other contaminants, is thought to be the leading cause of deadly illness in those first responders who breathed it in.
The contaminants were found to be around 50% non-fibrous material and construction debris, 40% glass and other fibers, and 9.2% cellulose. Trace amounts of asbestos, lead, mercury and countless other carcinogens were detected. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH, were released into the air by the fires that burned after the crash. Those toxins, which first responders, cleanup workers, and ordinary New Yorkers breathed in each day, created a perfect storm for a multitude of diseases. Besides several different types of cancer, cases of rhinosinusitis, gastroesophageal reflux disease, amyloidosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease were also reported. Those are just the physical effects; high numbers of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety were also reported in survivors.
So much vitriol was directed across the world after the attacks that the situation at home got somewhat lost in the fold. Eager to get back to normal after the crisis, President George W. Bush, Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Todd Whitman, and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani downplayed the health risks and reopened the area around Ground Zero too soon. In addition, Giuliani mishandled the cleanup, taking responsibility from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency and handing it over to New York City’s Department of Design and Construction. As a result, federal safety requirements such as the wearing of respirators were often ignored and rarely enforced.
While the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund was established via an Act of Congress shortly after the attacks to compensate victims of the attack and their families, the United States government did not directly address the health crisis which arose from the attacks until nearly a decade later.
The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act provided health aid and funding to first responders, volunteers, and survivors. The law’s namesake, NYPD Officer James Zadroga, died in January 2006 of an unknown respiratory disease attributed to exposure to toxins at Ground Zero, where he participated in rescue and recovery missions in the days following the attack.
While the original bill sponsored by Senator Bob Menendez and Representative Carolyn Maloney in 2006 failed to pass, a new version of the bill passed both houses in 2010 and was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2011. The bill was reauthorized in 2015, extending coverage until 2090.
Today, as we remember the first responders who died in that horrific attack, let us also commemorate those who survived, those who dove into the fire and risked their lives for the good of others and the good of their country, and who suffer the consequences of that sacrifice to this day.
Kate Morano is a graduate of Morris Central School and a freshman at American University in Washington D.C. Readers can contact her at email@example.com.