Fifteen years on, the dust has still to settle

The estimated 1,000 tons of asbestos-rich dust released in the collapse of the World Trade Centre has the potential to claim more lives says the UK Asbestos Training Association, with implications for the UK.

As any public buildings built or refurbished before the year 2000 may contain asbestos, UKATA continues to back the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in ensuring the duty to manage asbestos from regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 is adhered to – ensuring no city in the UK ever confronts a 9/11 style dust cloud unprepared.
During construction of the World Trade Centre in 1966, asbestos was a widely used building material and while specialists were called in over subsequent years to help remove this asbestos, they could do nothing about the 400 tons of the material that formed part of the fabric of the building and was ultimately to fall as dust on thousands of New Yorkers in 2001.

“Donna Summer attributed the lung cancer that led to her death to this asbestos dust cloud and
the death toll from this cloud could ultimately prove greater than from the initial attack,” said UKATA General Manager Craig Evans. “Estimates suggest 410,000 people could have been exposed when the towers collapsed and as asbestos diseases like mesothelioma take between 15 and 60 years to develop, the true cost in lives post 9/11 may not be fully appreciated for decades.”
A central caveat in health studies conducted post 9/11 is this latency period problem when it comes to cancers like mesothelioma, as decades can pass before a patient exhibits symptoms. This led to the inclusion of cancer in the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act (James Zadroga Act) in June 2012  – as experts estimate the cancers so far reported are most likely only the tip of the iceberg and Environmental Health Perspectives (among others) have published studies showing more conclusive evidence of a link between cancer and 9/11.By 2014, there had been more than 2,500 reported cases of cancer among rescuers active during 9/11.
The government health insurance scheme did not originally include cancers because they claimed that there was no link between the dust and the illnesses.  However, the link has since been made, and the victims are now able to claim compensation although it has already come too late for some.
Donna Summer is a high profile example of post 9/11 victims, but there are many others. Mr Leon Heyward’s development of lymphoma was ascribed to dust ingested post 9/11 and Jerry Borg’s death from pulmonary sarcoidosis was explained by 9/11 dust. It is highly unlikely they will be the last victims. As Craig explained, the issue has wider implications not just for buildings in the US, but the UK too.
“Asbestos is usually left in situ in a building unless it poses a credible threat,” added Craig. “However, post 9/11 we must take into account asbestos being released or disturbed unexpectedly. A terrorist attack is an extreme example when a gas explosion could deliver a similar result. The presence of asbestos in so many public buildings makes this no scare story but a very real concern. We must ensure people have training to recognise asbestos and that we have plans in place for buildings known to contain dangerous levels of asbestos were it ever to be released in dust form.
Estimates suggest 70% of buildings in the UK may contain asbestos, which means over 1.5 million buildings in the UK may still contain the substance nationwide. While UKATA acknowledges taking down every building containing asbestos is unrealistic, comprehensive training and a plan of what to do should the worst happen is essential to handle this killer substance safely.
“We can learn valuable lessons from 9/11 and the aftermath,” added Craig. “Fifteen years on, initial scepticism of a casual link between the dust and cancers caused by asbestos has been replaced by a growing acceptance of the truth.”

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