The True Count of Lives Lost
This past Monday President Trump signed the 9/11 Victims Bill. This same topic was again mentioned by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate. The bottom line is that we cannot minimalize the statements regarding the degree of illness related to airborne hazard exposure among the American heroes who acted selflessly to find survivors after the 9/11 attack on the World trade Center. Although I live in Tampa, Florida, I was on the first plane to JFK the day the airports re-opened on September 14, 2001. I am a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) and a Certified Safety Professional (CSP). I have specialized in evaluating air quality and worker exposure for the past 30 years and have done so across the US and in half a dozen other countries. I was tasked with evaluating air quality near ground zero in an effort to determine whether occupants of an adjacent building could safely return to work.
As I walked through the streets of New York that morning, fires were still burning, and responders were still looking for survivors. I noted that nearly all of them were wearing half-face negative pressure respirators equipped with HEPA filters. But that most had the needed protection dangling around their necks rather than over their faces where they could do their job of filtering the hazardous toxins I was measuring in the air. I asked why. The response I got was that the enormous level of airborne dust in the area was causing the filters to clog, making it difficult to breathe. The filters occluded so quickly that the responders had to break too often to obtain and replace filters. The men and women I saw were digging and working at a pace I hadn’t previously observed anywhere in my career. Time was of the essence and every minute mattered in the hopes of rescuing trapped individuals. So, they put their lives at even further risk, in an effort to help others.
It is notable that at the time, government officials stated repeatedly that although the rubble was full of over 2,000 metric tons of asbestos, airborne levels were relatively low. They said it was within Permissible Exposure Limits…. that the debris was buried in the rubble and was not airborne. The air samples I collected that day told a very different story. They included the highest airborne concentration of fibers I have ever recorded. That day, on the streets of New York, I measured 34 fibers per cubic centimeter (f/cc), a level 340 times higher than the OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for asbestos (0.1 f/cc). As we now know, approximately half a million New Yorkers were exposed to high concentrations of asbestos for weeks. Some measurements recorded by others dwarfed the concentrations I had measured. I also evaluated other contaminants such as airborne particulate, carbon monoxide and silica levels that day. The results were equally staggering.
Among the more well-known (but actually quite rare) diseases caused by asbestos exposure is Mesothelioma, a cancer of the pleural lining. It is painful, aggressive and untreatable. It is also only known to be caused by exposure to a single contaminant: asbestos. To date, the rate of Mesothelioma diagnosed among first responders is already many times what might be statistically expected; and due to the long latency period of the disease that rate is likely to skyrocket in the coming years. Measured silica and other particulate levels also far exceeded those that are known to cause Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD), silicosis, asbestosis, and other debilitating and potentially fatal lung ailments.
The record books show that 3,000 Americans were killed on 9/11. That will never reflect the true count of lives lost in the aftermath far exceeds those numbers. The heroes I encountered on the streets didn’t know or thought the cause was more important, but they lost their lives that day too.