Hard Lessons

The 10th Anniversary of 9/11 Recalls the Tragedy, the Heroism and the Lingering Health and Environmental Impacts of that Day.
Most U.S. publications are likely running some sort of remembrance or retrospective related to the tenth anniversary of 9/11 this month. The date has come to represent so much: tragedy, heroism, resilience. But it has taken this decade for some of the unsettling health impacts of that terrible day to manifest, from loss of lung function among workers, to learning difficulties in children born nearby, to cancer cases among first responders. When those towers collapsed, they left behind a mass of toxic chemicals in the burning debris, including lead, mercury, asbestos, dioxins and flame retardants. And while cleanup crews did a commendable job in addressing the site itself, residents and workers report that they were given false assurances that nearby environmental exposures would not compromise their health.

Instead, lead and asbestos carried aloft in tiny particulate matter made its way into nearby ventilation systems, other chemicals were absorbed by furniture, and the air surrounding the site—even months later—remained dangerous to breathe. Only now, with the recently passed James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act are the ongoing victims of 9/11 receiving the health support they need—but not all of them. The act still disqualifies those who have developed rare cancers as a result of their exposures until the government compiles more conclusive evidence.

And all those toxins give rise to other questions: Why are these buildings so toxic in the first place? Can we build skyscrapers that are not only better protected, but with better indoor air quality and less hazardous materials? The attacks on 9/11 have left the country with a new focus on building more secure, and more sustainable, tall buildings. The new 7 World Trade Center is a product of these lessons learned, built not only to prevent collapse and guard against bio-terror attacks, but also as the first commercial office building in NYC to be certified under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program thanks to features like recycled steel, rainwater collection, heat reuse and recycled insulation. One lesson we might take away from 9/11 is this: We need to do a better job of protecting ourselves from toxic exposures, both before and after tragedy strikes.