By Lorien Haynes

29th August 2010
The Daily Mail

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 are seared on our collective consciousness. But few people know that the tragedy left a toxic legacy that will claim more lives than those lost on the day itself. Lorien Haynes reports on the fight for health and justice by rescue workers who were engulfed by the deadly dust cloud

Firefighters at Ground Zero after the terrorist attack

11 September nine years ago, 2,975 people died in the worst-ever terrorist attack on US soil. The body count was shocking, and the trauma suffered by victims’ families hard to contemplate. But the danger to New York citizens was far from over. In addition to those who perished in and around the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and on United Flight 93, there are thousands of ‘shadow’ victims: people who inhaled the toxic dust cloud that enveloped Ground Zero and who are now suffering serious – in some cases fatal – illnesses as a direct result. Indeed, far more people are likely to die from the effects of the dust than in the attack itself.

These victims include office workers, shopkeepers, students and local residents – but the worst-affected are the ‘responders’: emergency service, recovery and volunteer aid workers who were exposed to the site at close quarters. These people went to help – and are paying with their lives. The New York City Department of Health has already recorded 817 deaths of World Trade Center (WTC) responders from illnesses generated by working on the site. But as well as the official figures, there are currently another 20,000 recorded sick by the WTC Medical Monitoring Treatment and Environmental programmes.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. According to the World Trade Center Health Registry, 410,000 people were heavily exposed to WTC toxins causing restrictive respiratory illnesses and cancers, which changes 11 September from a terrorist attack into a full-blown environmental disaster on the scale of Chernobyl, where the initial toll was overshadowed by deaths and illnesses that were still occurring up to 20 years later.

On 9/11 the dust from the pulverised towers was so thick and far-reaching that you could write your name in it on cars in Brooklyn. It contained chemicals including asbestos, lead, dioxin and deadly PVCs (the WTC buildings were the most heavily computerised in the world), mercury from 500,000 shattered fluorescent fixtures, plus emissions from more than 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel smouldering underneath the site. Robin Herbert, co-director of the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program, has expressed his concern about the number and combination of cancer-causing elements and other chemicals released, and observers have noticed a tendency for fast-developing and multiple cancers among emergency workers.

In the urgency of rescuing survivors from the rubble, crucial safety procedures seem to have been overlooked and conflicting instructions given by the authorities. People were operating without the correct protective clothing. Rescue teams were provided with paper masks that became clogged within seconds. Families who lived in the vicinity were told that they could clean up the contaminated dust with wet rags. A week after the attacks, in a bid to restore the collective morale of New York’s population and kick-start Lower Manhattan’s financial district, local workers, students and residents were told it was safe to return to their jobs, schools and homes. It was business as usual. Wall Street was open. New York had moved on.

Office workers were caked in toxic dust from the collapsed buildings.

But the shadow victims haven’t been able to move on – 70 per cent of emergency service workers have been diagnosed with serious respiratory problems as a result of their involvement with Ground Zero. And the real scandal is that post-disaster healthcare (mental and physical) has been so badly neglected that there is barely any provision for them.

David Miller, 41, is one example of a Ground Zero hero now seriously sick. Fit and robust before 11 September, he served on the day with the New York Army Guard. Nine years on, he is suffering from head, neck and skin cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and mesothelioma, an incurable asbestos-related lung cancer that normally takes decades to develop. In David’s case it was full blown just three and a half years after spending two weeks on the Ground Zero site, known as the Pile.

David is a powerful public speaker at 9/11 memorial rallies where, usually carrying his own oxygen tank, he details the lack of support offered to 9/11 workers by the government. ‘There are tens of thousands of us who are sick from World Trade Center toxins. We’ve got respiratory disease, PTSD, gastro-intestinal disease, all types of cancer. The politicians and the general public need to know this. We need help, and we need it now. We need to get funding and research, and to raise public awareness.’

In response to the situation, David formed the lobbying charity 9/11 Health Now with farmer, model and writer turned activist Claire Calladine. They have come across thousands of individuals whose health has been destroyed by exposure to the toxic dust. Individuals who have been financially, as well as physically, crippled by medical costs that aren’t covered by their insurance policies.

Read more regarding 9/11’s forgotten victims: ‘We’re living in a toxic time bomb’