Article image

9/11 responders are battling long-term health issues

Experts in disaster and emergency response from Edith Cowan University (ECU) report that responders to the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 are still battling significant health issues two decades later.

More than 91,000 people were directly exposed to a variety of hazards during the recovery and clean-up operations following the terrorist attacks. After the event, 80,785 of the responders enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP).

The researchers found that 3,439 of these participants are now dead – a significantly larger number than the 412 who died during the attacks. The main causes of death were aerodigestive illnesses (34 percent), cancer (30 percent) and mental health issues (15 percent). 

Since 2016, deaths attributed to these causes as well as to musculoskeletal and traumatic injuries increased six-fold. Leukemia has been one of the main health problems to emerge in the past five years.

“Leukemia has overtaken colon and bladder cancer in the rankings,” said study lead author Erin Smith, an associate professor at ECU’s School of Medical and Health Sciences. “This equates to an increase of 175 per cent in certified leukemia cases within this cohort of responders over a five-year period.  

“It’s not surprising: there is a proven link between benzene exposure and acute myeloid leukemia, and benzene is found in jet fuel which was one of the toxic exposures at the WTC site.”  

Prostate cancer is also increasingly common among responders, with an increase of 181 percent since 2016. “Inhaling the toxic dust at the WTC site potentially caused a cascading series of cellular events, increasing the number of inflammatory T-cells in some of these 9/11 responders,” explained Professor Smith.  “This increased inflammation may eventually lead to prostate cancer.”  

However, physical illness is not the only issues that 9/11 responders face. Scientists estimate that 15 to 20 percent of these individuals struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, which is over four times the rate of this mental illness in the general population. Moreover, the brain scans of many responders have shown evidence of the onset of early-stage dementia.

“Even almost 20 years later, the prevalence of mental health disorders and need for mental health treatment remains elevated among this group of 9/11 responders: almost half of all responders report an ongoing need for mental health care,” Professor Smith said.  

The comorbid conditions that many 9/11 responders  struggle with makes them particularly vulnerable to other illnesses too – most recently COVID-19. 

The research is published in the journal Prehospital and Disaster Medicine.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day