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CNN reports today that Federal health authorities just added 58 cancer types to the insurance coverage for first responders, nearby residents and survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. The World Trade Center Health Program, led by Dr. John Howard, is responding to recommendations made by its Science/Technical Advisory Committee to add the cancers.
While health insurance coverage for these victims is certainly laudable and responsible, we must also consider a larger issue: Our buildings are being made with toxins that, when they are demolished, will poison us for many years to come. When it comes to building demolition, these toxins come in the form of course particulates.
Building Toxins and Course Particulates
When our modern buildings are demolished, they can rain fumes of various dangerous substances a mile or more from the demolition site.
The most blatant illustration of the demolition effect is the World Trade Center bombing. The collapse of the towers caused such a toxic fume that there are still thousands of people suffering from a slow poisoning of the lungs. Dangerous chemicals including asbestos, formaldehydes, benzenes and many others were breathed by thousands of people.
This effect was not limited to rescuers and those who escaped from the twin towers. Many others who happened to be in the vicinity are now suffering. One of the more prevalent diseases has been sarcoidosis—a life-threatening inflammation of the lungs. As toxin deposits build up and damage the airways, scar tissue forms—making mild asthma seem like a walk in the park.
This scar tissue affects the elasticity and efficiency of the lungs, causing life-threatening lung collapse. A study released by nine doctors (Izbicki et al. 2007) who researched the delayed health effects at Ground Zero reported that firefighters and rescue workers were diagnosed with sarcoidosis at a rate of five times the incidence rate prior to 9/11.
An epidemic of emphysema, asthma, allergies, sarcoma and the many cancers was also an unfortunate result of the Trade Center bombing. While we know asbestos is toxic to the lungs, it is still a popular building material. Many structural components of new buildings use asbestos as an ingredient. Because it is a cheap fire retardant material, buildings still go up using it. Asbestos has been linked to thyroid cancer and lung cancer in many studies, which caused a number of high profile lawsuits and residential building restrictions.
Another pollutant released when buildings collapse or are demolished is benzene. Benzene has been identified as a carcinogen, and certain types of leukemia are associated with benzene exposure. Other toxins thought to be released by building collapse include mercury, lead, cadmium, dioxin, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Many of these components are still used to build buildings. All of them were used in buildings a few decades ago, when many of our current skyscrapers were built.
Besides the more publicized cases of cancer and sarcoidosis, ailments associated with the WTC bombing include reactive-airways syndrome, asthma, chronic throat irritation, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD—also referred to as heartburn) and persistent sinusitis. Other cases thought to be associated with the WTC have included miner's lung and thyroid cancer. While many thought these disorders were temporary, new diagnoses have continually increased. This is because toxins can build up and reside in lung tissue cells, affecting future lung capacity for many years to come. Studies on firefighters involved in the rescue report an average loss of 300 milliliters of lung capacity (Senior 2003).