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‘Absolutely Horrifying’

Exposure to environmental toxins left thousands of 9/11 responders suffering from more severe health problems than officials anticipated. Will it get worse?

A cloud of asbestos, mercury and other potentially hazardous materials hung over the city after the twin towers collapsed
Tannen Maury / AFP-Getty Images
A cloud of asbestos, mercury and other potentially hazardous materials hung over the city after the twin towers collapsed
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By Jennifer Barrett
Updated: 2:16 p.m. PT June 1, 2006

June 1, 2006 - Construction supervisor John Feal arrived at Ground Zero the day after the September 11 World Trade Center attacks to help with the recovery efforts. He only worked there for five days—forced to stop when a falling steel beam crushed his left foot—but the experience has never stopped haunting him.

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Feal, now 39, has had surgery on his foot more than two dozen times and still walks with a lopsided gait. But he’s developed other health problems, too, including gastroesophageal reflux disease, posttraumatic-stress disorder and respiratory problems. His lung capacity has diminished to the point that he occasionally stops to gasp for breath midsentence. Unable to work, and struggling to cover his mounting medical bills, Feal says at times he's felt like he's “slipping through the cracks.”

As health officials are discovering, Feal is not alone.

Only one responder’s death—that of New York City police detective James Zadroga, who succumbed to respiratory failure in January—has been directly linked by a medical examiner to his exposure to environmental toxins at Ground Zero. But at least six other deaths (from causes ranging from heart failure to lung cancer) have been reported among responders in their 30s and 40s who worked at the World Trade Center site. And thousands more are struggling with health problems far worse than officials initially anticipated. “People think that it’s just a few guys from 9/11 suffering,” says Feal, “but there are literally thousands of us.”

It’s too early to know with certainty how many deaths may result from the cocktail of asbestos, mercury, silica, fiberglass and other potentially hazardous materials released when the twin towers collapsed. Nor is it possible to say with certainty which health problems are related to the responders’ work in the rubble of the trade center. But it’s clear that many of the estimated 40,000 police, firefighters and other workers who came to the site to assist in rescue and recovery efforts have begun suffering from similar and sometimes serious ailments during the past four and a half years. “You can’t witness and be exposed to what these people were exposed to without it taking a toll,” says Dr. Stephen M. Levin, codirector of the World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “To listen to how life has become for some patients, it’s absolutely horrifying.”

Dr. John Howard, who was appointed in February as federal coordinator of 9/11 health issues by the Bush administration, has said that the government will likely need to monitor the health of those who were at or near Ground Zero for 20 to 30 years. How much money—and manpower—that will require is unclear. But it’s likely more than the $125 million initially allocated by the federal government for 9/11 responders as part of a $20 billion federal aid package for areas affected by the terrorist attacks. “I don’t think we’re prepared to come up with a number [yet],” said Howard earlier this spring.

It's still not even clear how many may be suffering from related health problems since thousands have not yet been screened. Worse, some of the most serious health problems may not yet have emerged. “We have never done an adequate characterization of the nature and scope of the contamination, so we can’t quantify what kinds of problems people are going to face,” says David Newman, an industrial hygienist at the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). “There may be a whole group of people out there who may still become seriously ill.”

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