Seventeen years out from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, nearly 10,000 first responders and others who were in the World Trade Center area have been diagnosed with cancer. More than 2,000 deaths have been attributed to 9/11 illnesses.
It will get worse. By the end of 2018, many expect that more people will have died from their toxic exposure from 9/11 than were killed on that terrible Tuesday.
“We’re nervous,” said Dr. Michael Crane, medical director of the World Trade Center Health Program Clinical Center of Excellence at Mount Sinai.
Robert Reeg of Stony Point, New York, knows the feeling. The retired Fire Department of New York firefighter was seriously injured in the South Tower collapse. In the last 17 years, he’s seen fellow first responders who survived the attacks fall victim to the illnesses caused by the contaminants that were spewed all over.
“You lose track, there’s so many of them,” the 66-year-old said. As for his own health risks, given the growing incidents of cancer among 9/11 first responders, Reeg said he doesn’t dwell on it. “It’s at the back of your mind. But you can’t let it control you.”
The numbers demonstrate the continued loss:
- In 2017, 23 current or former members of the New York City Police Department died of 9/11-related diseases. That’s the same number of NYPD members that perished on Sept. 11, 2001.
- The FDNY lost a stunning 343 members on Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, line-of-duty deaths linked to 9/11 are approaching 180, now well over half lost on the day of the attacks. So many have died since the attacks that last year, a new tablet had to be added to the Hall of Heroes at 1 Police Plaza to accommodate all the names of the fallen.
- One FBI agent was reported killed in Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; as of this August, the FBI reports a death toll of 15 from cancers linked to toxic exposure during the subsequent investigation and cleanup.
- According to John Feal, founder of the Feal Good Foundation that supports 9/11 rescue and recovery workers,there have been more losses so far this year – 163 – than in any year since he started tabulating them in 2008.
New Rochelle Fire Department Capt. Barry Nechis spent a month at Pier 94 working on logistics during the recovery effort. He worries about the range of exposure, from those who worked on The Pile, to the people who sifted through debris at Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, to the mechanics who worked on dust-laden trucks after they returned to communities that stepped up during the national crisis.
“Oh, it’s not going to end,” he said. Nechis is registered with the WTC Health Program and said he is “just being monitored.”
So many risks
Specialists in occupational health like Crane can usually calculate what risks a worker faces in a standard workplace setting, depending on chemical exposure. “9/11 was the opposite,” he said during an Aug. 26 interview. “Steel melting, every time (rescue and recovery workers) moved something, a puff of smoke. They didn’t know what they were dealing with, didn’t have the sort of adequate equipment to protect themselves.”
Some 90,000 people have reported exposure to toxic chemicals — asbestos, burning jet fuel, burning computer parts, pulverized concrete and myriad other substances. “No one has ever codified or captured all the stuff that was released from that pile,” Crane said. “It’s an unknown exposure.”
“I worry about everything. I literally worry about everything,” Crane said.
There’s been a somewhat expected progression in the kinds of disease seen among first responders. At first, Crane said, people suffered from irritative diseases such as asthma. “You were breathing the air, you were eating the particles.”
It takes years, sometimes decades, for cancers to develop from environmental exposures. “We believe that is what’s happening now,” Crane said.
Many are sick for years; for others, it comes on fast.
Read the full story at USA Today and check for more updates as we remember this tragic day, 17 years ago.
Feature photo: Empty Sky is the official New Jersey September 11 memorial to the victims of the September 11 attacks on the United States. It is located in Liberty State Park in Jersey City at the mouth of Hudson River across from the World Trade Center site.