9/11 Health Effects on First Responders

When terrorists flew commercial jets into the World Trade Center (WTC) and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the entire nation reeled at the magnitude of our collective loss. Thousands of Americans died that day, including hundreds of heroic first responders who ran into the burning buildings rather than away to safety. As the skyscrapers collapsed and news outlets began reporting casualty estimates, few could imagine the dust and debris from the crumbling towers would one day claim as many, if not more, lives than the initial attacks.

Doctors and researchers initially expected to see a sharp rise in the death rate for first responders, but early studies actually found a lower-than-average mortality rate for NYC Ground Zero emergency personnel. However, as the NYPD, FDNY and the WTC Health Registry continued monitoring 9/11 health effects, experts eventually linked a variety of lung conditions and cancers to the WTC attacks and subsequent cleanup.

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World Trade Center Illnesses

Most Americans have seen the iconic images of first responders and bystanders in the foreground of monolithic plumes of dust created by the WTC collapse. Those debris clouds contained particles of building materials, office supplies, munitions, jet fuel and multiple toxic compounds. In the immediate aftermath, doctors and researchers focused their surveillance efforts on lung conditions caused by inhalation of these materials.

It took more than a decade, but research eventually demonstrated links between 9/11 dust and several health conditions. For emergency responders and civilians fleeing the area, just breathing the air at Ground Zero caused lung problems, skin rashes and a variety of cancers.

List of WTC-Related Health Conditions

The conditions below have been linked to World Trade Center dust exposure by at least one scientific study:

  • Autoimmune disease
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Hearing loss
  • Hematopoietic cancer (neoplasm)
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV)-related cancers
  • Lymphatic cancer (neoplasm)
  • Myeloma
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Oropharyngeal cancers
  • Prostate cancer
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Skin rash
  • Suicide
  • Thyroid cancer

Understanding the Evolution of First Responder Health Problems

Initial studies found no link between Ground Zero exposure and several of the now confirmed WTC-related illnesses. Researchers attribute this to the general health of first responders and the time it takes for cancers to develop. Because emergency personnel work in physically demanding positions, their general health stays above average. This fact can result in lower-than-average mortality rates for emergency responders, especially in the short term.

According to the World Trade Center Health Program, WTC cancers can take years to develop after a person is exposed to toxic materials. Thus, the number of cancer diagnoses in a population exposed to carcinogenic materials, like those found in WTC dust, increases over time. Unfortunately, this means first responders and 9/11 survivors may continue to see increasing levels of cancer as time passes.

World Trade Center Dust

See what was in the toxic debris cloud.
Source: Environmental Health Perspectives
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls
  • Polychlorinated dibenzodioxins
  • Polychlorinated dibenzofurans
  • Pesticides, phthalate esters
  • Brominated diphenyl ethers
  • Other hydrocarbons
  • Asbestos
  • Lead
  • Construction materials
  • Soot
  • Paint
  • Glass fibers
  • Wood
  • Paper
  • Cotton

WTC- Related Illnesses: Coverage and Compensation

Two key federal programs provide healthcare and financial compensation to 9/11 survivors and first responders dealing with illnesses and cancer resulting from their time at Ground Zero.

9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF): provides compensation to 9/11 victims or their surviving family members in exchange for giving up the right to sue the airlines involved in the attacks

World Trade Center Health Program: monitors and treats 9/11 survivors and first responders afflicted by WTC-related illnesses

The VCF and WTC Health Program provide compensation and healthcare coverage, respectively,  for more than 100 WTC-related illnesses. In some cases, the WTC Health Program provides coverage for rare cancers, like pancreatic cancer, despite lacking a clear link between them and Ground Zero exposure. For both programs, individuals must provide documentation confirming their eligibility according to program guidelines. For more information on covered illnesses and eligibility, follow the appropriate link below:

9/11 Victim Compensation Fund FAQs >>
WTC Health Program Covered Conditions >>

9/11 Heroes Are Entitled to Compensation & Healthcare

Money can’t compensate for what we lost on September 11, 2001, or the toll of ongoing illness and premature loss of life that will continue for years to come. But, as a nation, we agree the brave men and women who responded to this unimaginable tragedy should not worry about paying for medical care or other WTC-related costs. If you or a loved one struggle with illness or injuries from 9/11, you should speak with one of our legal experts today. Our experts can ease the process of securing financial compensation and healthcare coverage for any 9/11 survivor or first responder.

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Authored by Katy Moncivais, Ph.D.Medical Editor
Photo of Katy Moncivais, Ph.D.
Katy Moncivais holds a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. She’s an experienced Regenerative Medicine Consultant with a demonstrated history of working in the hospital & healthcare industry. Skilled in adult stem cells, medical devices, biomechanics, bacterial and mammalian cell culture, and regenerative medicine, she provides guidance on an array of topics affecting consumers. In her role at ConsumerSafety.org, Dr. Moncivais works alongside the writing and research staff to help deliver fact-based news stories to consumers. Her unique professional history alongside her rigorous educational background allows her to contribute to a variety of consumer-focused topics with a fresh perspective. In addition, Dr. Moncivais reviews portions of medically driven content to ensure scientific accuracy.
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