State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The World Trade Center Disaster And Our Toxic World

Even after fifteen years, the destruction of the World Trade Center remains locked in our minds and clouds our hearts. For New Yorkers, it either seems like it happened yesterday or sometime in the distant past; it’s hard to believe that fifteen years have passed. For some of the people who served as first responders and for people exposed to the cloud of dust and rubble that both remained and drifted from the site, the pain continues. We have learned that some of the materials contained in the Trade Center, when burned and released to the environment, included carcinogens and toxics never meant for humans to breathe.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reports that we are still experiencing the health impacts of that day. According to Dr. Mary Bassett, the Department’s Commissioner:

“The September 11 terrorist attacks affected millions and caused physical and mental health conditions for thousands of people most directly exposed to the disaster. For more than a decade, the federally funded NYC Health Department WTC Health Registry has studied the long-term effects of the attack on area workers, residents, and students and the rescue, recovery and clean-up workers who responded.”

These data allow us to understand the health impacts of 9/11 because we can compare the group on the registry to the general population. I won’t focus on the shameful behavior of congress and their reluctant funding of health care benefits to the heroes and victims of the Trade Center attacks, but there is little question that the air quality in and around the Trade Center site was dangerous, poorly understood at the time, and not clearly communicated to those exposed. The impact is now better understood than fifteen years ago. According to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene there were a number of health effects. Perhaps most pronounced was the impact on breathing:

Lung function describes how well a person can move air in and out of the lungs.

  • Firefighters and emergency medical service (EMS) workers experienced sharp declines in lung function within a year of the attack. Ten years after 9/11, these changes were largely the same, even in even those who never smoked.
  • Six to seven years after 9/11, four times as many firefighters and twice as many EMS workers had below-normal lung function for their ages, as before the attacks. Lung function declines were greater for current smokers than for non-smokers.
  • Changes in lung function also affected area workers and residents.

Obviously the people who built the Trade Center could not have planned for the type of event that destroyed it. Even a building without the plastics and toxics we use in a modern skyscraper would have emitted particulates and dust that would have affected health had it been subject to such a horrific attack. But the use of toxic substances in our construction materials and electronics increased the health impacts.

These substances are ever present in our economy and in our daily lives. They are in the laptop I am using right now, the plastics in our kitchens, and in buildings built before we knew better and included asbestos as a fire retardant inside our walls. While not all of the impacts of the Trade Center’s destruction on lung function are related to toxics, the links to cancer almost certainly were related to these substances. According to a NYC Health Department study presented in a September 9th, 2016, update:

“The study found that for all cancer sites combined from 2007-2011, there were 11 percent more cancer cases than expected among rescue/recovery workers, and 8 percent more among civilian survivors compared with the New York State general population.”

While new technology introduces more and more toxics into our ecosystems, the technology of medical care continues to improve to treat the diseases resulting from those poisons. But these medical advances should not be used as an excuse to needlessly expose people and the planet to toxics. I am not arguing that we should stop using the technologies that now require these chemicals, but that avoiding such substances should be a design parameter for construction and new electronics. Companies such as Apple are working to reduce their dependence on harmful substances and replace them with less dangerous chemicals—but this process will take a long time to get under control.

For many decades, Americans casually dumped toxic waste into holes in the ground or stored them in barrels managed with little concern for corrosion. It is impossible to estimate how much the Defense Department, the private sector, and the government have spent to ensure that people are no longer in the pathway of exposure to toxic waste. I estimate that since Superfund was enacted in December 1980, about a trillion dollars has been spent on this work.

But as I mentioned earlier, toxics are not simply waste, but are used in the buildings, equipment, and vehicles we rely on in our daily life. It would be infeasible to advocate abandoning our use of these resources. But we need to do a better job of reducing toxics and managing their use and disposal.

The destruction of the World Trade Center was an act of evil, but we are determined to not allow terror to change the way we live. That is why we were in such a rush to clear the pile at the site and to assure ourselves that the indoor and outdoor air near the Trade Center was safe. I remember well the urge we all had to both grieve and return to normalcy. But normal after 9/11 was a new normal. America changed after the attacks and each September 11th we are reminded of the new world we live in. Addressing the root causes of terror and attacking it at its source has been a great challenge for our country. We are always looking for abandoned backpacks and submitting to scans and searches designed to enhance our safety. This is now a routine part of how we live.

While combatting evil is a challenge that will never end, reducing the use of toxics in our daily life is a challenge we are capable of meeting. Technologies use these substances because they have important properties that enhance performance. But alternatives to toxic chemicals can and should be developed. We used to believe that motor vehicles required lead in gasoline to improve performance. When we learned how toxic lead was, we figured out less toxic ways to achieve similar goals when we refined gasoline. There are many examples of creative alternatives to toxics in our technologies.

I am writing this on September 11th and the somber images on the TV bring all of us a little closer to the awful day. I will always remember the clear blue sky of a perfect late summer morning; the cloud of dust drifting north clearly visible from my office window; the silence of the people walking on Broadway by Columbia’s campus, only to be interrupted by the sound of fighter jets circling overhead. I remember the feeling of helplessness and the urge to do something in response. In a dangerous world we must be vigilant in the face of evil, but we must also do our best to reduce self-inflicted wounds. We can do a better job of detoxifying our technology, and of helping those who are victims of attacks and disasters. We owe it to our children and the planet they will inherit.

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