Asbestos and The World Trade Center’s Hidden Impact

Even 20-plus years later, everyone can still feel the impact of the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Centers. The world has undergone significant changes, such as increased airport security measures and improved data protection. Another critical difference is recognizing the correlation between asbestos and its potential health risks. The builders used asbestos in constructing the World Trade Center for its heat-resistant and strong properties. However, when the towers were hit, they released asbestos fibers that residents inhaled and ingested. These fibers would go on to cause aggressive lung and/or abdominal cancers. Experts have linked over two thousand deaths to 9/11-related illnesses over the years.

But long before the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the use of asbestos in the construction of the World Trade Center was a common practice in the building industry despite these known risks. Asbestos was highly regarded for its exceptional heat resistance and durability, making it an ideal choice for insulating materials and fireproofing. The builders of the Twin Towers utilized asbestos extensively in various components of the buildings, including fireproofing sprays, insulation, and floor tiles. In this first of three 2023 blog series regarding September 11th and the legacy of asbestos, we will detail the development of the World Trade Center, its use of asbestos in its construction, and its lasting effects on the state of New York.

World Trade Center’s Construction: A Monumental Project with Asbestos Dangers

The World Trade Center was a complex of seven Lower Manhattan buildings, with two skyscraping buildings named the North Tower and the South Tower. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, when contractors built the World Trade Center, they commonly used asbestos in construction materials due to its heat-resistant properties. The primary use of asbestos in the Twin Towers was for insulation, asbestos-containing cement, flooring, and foam board. For example, they used asbestos along the first 40 floors of the north tower through spray-on asbestos fireproofing on the steel beams. Although the EPA discontinued the use of asbestos by the end of the center’s construction, historians estimate that the north tower contained 300-400 tons of asbestos.

In the mid-1980s, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey established asbestos use and abatement regulations. During this time, the Port Authority began a program to remove asbestos from the World Trade Center, which proved difficult, arduous, and expensive. Unfortunately, the two towers still contained asbestos when they were hit. While serving its intended purposes during construction, this widespread use of asbestos unknowingly laid the groundwork for a hidden health crisis. When disturbed or damaged, asbestos fibers can become airborne and fester before making their way into an unaware human after breathing. The fibers released during the 9/11 attacks became a ticking time bomb, as they were inhaled and ingested by not only first responders but also countless residents, office workers, and visitors who were in the vicinity.

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Asbestos and NY Health Risks: Understanding the Mesothelioma Threat

This often-overlooked aspect of the World Trade Center’s history underscores the complex legacy of the iconic towers. While they stood as symbols of architectural prowess and economic strength, they also carried within them a silent threat that would become painfully apparent in the years following their tragic collapse. That said, New York’s historical use of asbestos was about in line with national trends, as asbestos was widely used in construction materials and various industries across the United States throughout much of the 20th century. Asbestos was valued for its fire-resistant and insulating properties, making it a popular choice in construction, shipbuilding, automotive manufacturing, and other sectors. Many states, including New York, had buildings and infrastructure containing asbestos materials.

The aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11 was devastating. The towers’ collapse resulted in the release of a toxic dust cloud, which contained thousands of contaminants. Individuals still feel the impact of this event today, as many of those exposed to the dust have developed health issues, but even before the towers fell, the production of these buildings was enough cause for alarm. Many workers could have been exposed long before the attacks even occurred. Making matters worse, is mesothelioma has a long latency period, making it all the more difficult to fight. Some of the contaminants released during the attacks because of their usage in products include:

  • Asbestos
  • Benzene
  • Calcium carbonate
  • Concrete dust
  • Dioxin
  • Glass fibers
  • Lead
  • Mercury

Given the long latency period of asbestos-related diseases, the health impacts of asbestos exposure resulting from the World Trade Center attacks will only begin to manifest years or even decades later. This means that individuals who were exposed to the asbestos-laden dust on that day could be at risk of developing mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer, or other related illnesses well into the future, even if they were not immediately symptomatic or aware of the exposure. Due to this, the average age of a 9/11 first responder is now about 55. While many people face a cancer diagnosis as they age, the rate of some cancers among first responders is up to 30 percent higher than in the general population.

Reflecting on New York’s Asbestos Past, Preparing for the Journey Ahead

Throughout the construction of the Twin Towers, asbestos was lauded for its fireproofing and insulation properties. Unfortunately, we now know the dangers associated with this material and the devastating impacts it can have on human health. If you have been affected by asbestos use in New York and are experiencing symptoms related to mesothelioma or lung cancer, you should consult with a trusted medical professional at a facility. You may also be eligible to file a claim with a New York asbestos lawyer and receive compensation for treatment.

In Part 2 of this series, we will uncover the health risks of the World Trade Center attacks, which released asbestos-laden debris into the air, impacting first responders, cleanup crews, and residents. We will focus on the emergence of mesothelioma and other lung-related illnesses years after the attacks, revealing the long latency period of asbestos-related diseases. In Part 3, we’ll delve into the efforts and advancements in medical care, support, and preventive measures, highlighting today’s initiatives to address the ongoing health consequences of that fateful day. Stay tuned to explore the intricate connection between the Twin Towers, asbestos, and the health legacy of 9/11.