Of the people who enrolled on a government-funded monitoring and treatment programme after the September 11 attacks, more than 3,600 responders and 1,000 local residents and workers have died. New patients are expected to be diagnosed with cancers for decades to come, reports Etan Smallman
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The 9/11 attacks killed 2,977 people. For many more, the toxic health fallout of the deadliest terrorist incident in history would not be felt for years to come.
Tens of thousands of New Yorkers are afflicted with cancer, chronic respiratory illnesses and a plethora of other conditions associated with the noxious dust and fumes they inhaled in the days after the Twin Towers came down 20 years ago this Saturday. Many are only now presenting with symptoms.
“I had no medical history before 9/11,” says Richard Palmer Jr, who had only taken one sick day in 16 years working with the New York City Department of Corrections, which runs the city’s jails. Now, he says: “I take about 18 medications a day to survive.”
At just 43, in 2006, he had a quadruple bypass and eight stents placed in his heart. He has also been diagnosed with sleep apnoea, asthma and acid reflux.
His conditions can all be traced back to 2001, when he was working six blocks from what would become known as Ground Zero.
Palmer, now 59, helped run the emergency morgue operation and did not go home for three days – all the while inhaling potentially deadly dust and ash.
The World Trade Centre Health Program is monitoring 112,000 potentially vulnerable people, 65,000 of whom are certified for at least one 9/11-related illness.
Deputy director Brittany Rizek tells i: “The destruction of the World Trade Centre generated over a million tons of waste and produced massive aerosol plumes, exposing many workers and residents to a dust cloud that consisted of a complex alkaline mixture of pulverised building debris and wood, paper, furniture, glass, fibreglass and concrete. The more concerning specific carcinogens would be the benzine, asbestos and cadmium.”
Of those enrolled on the government-funded monitoring and treatment programme, more than 3,600 responders and 1,000 local residents and workers have died.
John Mormando, 54, contracted skin cancer in 2015. But it was only with his diagnosis in 2018 of breast cancer – making him one of the few men to suffer from the disease, which in more than 99 per cent of cases occurs in women – that he was alerted to the September 11 connection.
The commodities broker had, as instructed, quickly returned to work at the New York Mercantile Exchange, just a block from the smouldering attack site.
“We were going into the office every day. It was a war zone and there were fires still burning and smoke everywhere and all we had was these masks like we wear now for Covid,” he says.
“The Environmental Protection Agency had said that it was good to go back to work, so we believed them. And now we know that it wasn’t good. A handful of my friends have passed away since 9/11 from cancers.”
In 2003, the EPA inspector general found that the organisation had no basis for its speedy pronouncements about air quality.
There are so many victims that attorney Troy Rosasco has represented 3,000 clients since 9/11 and his law firm is devoted entirely to such cases. He expects to see new patients being diagnosed with cancer for another 10 or 20 years.
Rosasco says many of his clients who worked “on a very hot, embering pile of debris” during the clean-up operation were not given adequate equipment that could have protected them.
“In fact, they didn’t even give them the paper masks that you and I might find in a department store.”
He adds: “The federal government inappropriately sent people down to Ground Zero. If you want to be completely cynical about it, there are many people who said, ‘We need to tell people it’s safe regardless of whether or not it is, simply because New York City is the financial capital of the world and if we don’t have Wall Street up and running, there would be utter chaos’.”
Lila Nordstrom was a 17-year-old high schooler whose classroom had a panoramic view of the collapsing towers. But “the real issue”, she says, is that she and her friends were sent back less than a month later to study in “what was basically like an environmental disaster zone”.
“It was very visibly not safe. Everything was coated in dust, you could smell a really acrid smoke smell all day, every day. And then students started reporting things like nosebleeds and headaches and coughs, and the school nurse got overwhelmed.”
Nordstrom, the author of Some Kids Left Behind: A Survivor’s Fight for Health Care in the Wake of 9/11, says that when she heard in 2006 about James Zadroga, the first NYPD officer whose death was attributed to the dust, “it dawned on me very quickly… that’s going to be us.”
She says the rush to get New Yorkers back to schools and offices “is the legacy of the way we view our lack of obligation to regular people in this country. What this exposure created for me was not just a lifetime of health complications but also a lifetime of navigating what it means to be chronically ill in America – with no social safety net – which is almost the worst imposition.”
Now 37, she has suffered years of chronic bronchitis and gastroesophageal reflux disease, which causes “intense pain” and “full-blown inflammatory breakouts in my body”.
Yet Nordstrom still considers herself to be one of the lucky ones. “You know, a lot of my classmates have cancer.”