9/11’s toxic dust

Sept. 11, 2001 has been memorialized by unforgettable images, among which were the buildings collapsing in a blanket of dust and smoke, and people rushing from the scene, covered in a white dust that we now know was toxic.

The numbers of Ground Zero workers with serious medical issues keep growing. Many are claiming the toxic dust they inhaled have caused a myriad of health issues, including cancer, asthma, persistent coughs (known among those afflicted as WTC cough), and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

At the time, workers and volunteers were assured by Christie Whitman, then administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, that the air was safe to breathe. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey asked Paul Lioy, director of exposure science at Rutgers University and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, to collect and test samples of the dust. It turned out that the dust was a toxic cocktail of asbestos; metallic particles including lead; cement; gypsum; calcium carbonate; and glass fibers. The dust pH was highly alkaline and extremely caustic, and according to experts, caused severe medical problems for first responders and those who spent months cleaning the site.

This weekend, as we all remember and pay homage to those who lost their lives, it is also a good time to be reminded to pay more attention to the air we breathe daily. Lead dust – present in many pre-1978 built homes (the year lead paint was banned) – is poisonous to everyone, but especially children, pregnant women and pets. The list of health problems it causes is long and troublesome, including brain damage, loss of IQ, learning disability, hearing loss, nervous system and kidney damage.

Asbestos is a human carcinogen, and is linked to lung cancer, laryngeal cancers and malignant mesothelioma. Since these cancers develop 10 to 30 years after exposure, many of the 9/11 workers might be still symptom free.

If you suspect an environmental hazard might be lurking in your home, your first stop should be to have your home tested by certified inspectors. Once testing is complete and a remediation plan established, hire only contractors who are certified to remove the specific hazard.

Past exposure to lead may be to blame for over 400,000 deaths in the United States every year (The Lancet Public Health.)

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