Exposure to the 9/11 Toxic Cloud

By: Gavriella Jutan  |  November 21, 2023

By Gavriella Jutan

As someone born in 2002 right after the horrifying attack of 9/11, I grew up surrounded by devastating stories of family members and friends who remember the attack vividly, as if it occurred just yesterday. Not only did many Americans lose their loved-ones, but the United States changed forever. Many firefighters, first responders, volunteers, and workers were present at the World Trade Center (WTC) helping and assisting the injured. At the time, the goal was to evacuate all of the injured and get them to safety. In that moment, nothing else mattered. It was a selfless act. 

However, years later, individuals who were there helping at the World Trade Center began experiencing symptoms and illnesses because of major exposure to the toxic cloud. The number of people who died after 9/11, because of 9/11, has unfortunately exceeded the number of people that were killed on the actual day. It is reported that 2,974 lives were lost that day. Since 9/11/2001, 4,343 people have died. This is due to the toxicity that the survivors, first responders, and firefighters were exposed to. Of the 4,343 people, 1,366 of them died from cancer. Additionally, people who were living and/or working within a two mile radius of the World Trade Center, were also discovered to have had health issues related to the exposure. For example, research conducted on the pregnant women and children amongst the exposed, illustrated the detrimental effects of in-utero growth and child development. During the past 21 years, it has been discovered that the toxins from the toxic cloud at the WTC caused individuals to be more vulnerable to illnesses. 

When the World Trade Center fell, it created a massive toxic cloud that stayed for 99 days after the attack. The cloud contained a multitude of toxins including, soot from fires buildings, and the attack plane, dust that contained tiny particles of glass, lead, mercury, 24,000 gallons of fuel, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Over the years, there have been multiple research studies conducted, proving that exposure to the toxic cloud on 9/11 is directly correlated with cancer diagnoses. Specifically,cancers such as thyroid, prostate, lung, leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma were found in survivors. Research indicates that people who were helping at the scenes have a 25% higher risk of developing prostate cancer, 41% higher risk of developing leukemia and lymphoma, and a 81% higher chance of developing thyroid cancer. 

In one study examining the correlation between prostate cancer and WTC exposure, researchers performed a nanostring assay between patients with prostate cancer who were present at the World Trade Center, with patients with prostate cancer who were not present on 9/11. A nanostring assay uses fluorescent barcodes that allows the expression of up to 800 different genes or 228 gene fusions in a single assay. This study showed that patients who were present at the WTC on 9/11 had significantly higher DNA damage, than the other group who were not present. The results indicate that respiratory exposure to the toxic cloud induced inflammatory and immune responses in prostate tissue leading to cancer.

Another cancer related study, researched mu​​ltiple myeloma in patients present at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Data shows that between September 2001 and July 2017, there were 16 firefighters that were diagnosed with multiple myeloma. All 16 firefig​hters were reportedly present at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Researchers collected serum samples between December 2013 and October 2015. They assayed peripheral blood, concluding that the exposure to the World Trade Center dust and toxins is associated with myeloma precursor disease

Furthermore, between September 2001 and December 2019, there were 248 patients diagnosed with lung cancer who were exposed to the toxic cloud on 9/11. 57% of the population studied were women. Results show that adenocarcinoma was more common in individuals who never smoked before, compared to people who had smoked in the past. This proves that the toxic exposure at the World Trade Center, caused the non-smokers to be diagnosed with lung cancer. 

Not only were individuals who helped out at the scene of the disaster directly exposed to many toxins, but other people who were living or working within a one to two mile radius of the WTC were also met with health issues. Pregnant women who were living or working in the area were considered directly exposed to the toxic cloud, leading to their babies being affected. Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were also released on 9/11 in the toxic cloud. PFAS can go through the placental barrier causing harm to a fetus. Researchers measured PFAS in mothers who were exposed to the toxic cloud while pregnant, by measuring the plasma or cord blood. The data came from three groups of mothers. One group was living or working within two miles of the WTC, while another was a group of mothers that lived within two miles of the WTC. The last group of mothers exposed,  worked within two miles of the WTC. The levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) was higher in mothers who were living within two miles of the WTC, than others in the study. The results of this study indicate that exposure to the toxic cloud on 9/11 resulted in higher PFAS/PFAO concentrations, leading to birth defects.

Moreover, other toxins that were released in the toxic cloud were polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and benzoapyrene (BaP). BaP-DNA adducts have PAH genetic damage which is associated with a higher risk of adverse birth outcomes and cancer. After the 9/11 disaster, researchers studied a group of children who were born from mothers who gave birth at three hospitals in lower Manhattan. The children were followed through their third birthdays, carefully measuring their cognitive and motor development. The results showed that there was a significant interaction between cord blood adducts and exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in-utero, on mental development. Therefore, prenatal exposure to ETS and PAH may contribute to reduction in cognitive development among children whose mothers were exposed to the toxic cloud.

Additionally, a different  study assessed women who were pregnant and living within half a mile of the WTC present at 9/11. They compared the babies born to exposed women, with babies born to mothers who were not exposed. The results indicated that there was a doubling in occurrence of intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR), a condition in which the fetus does not grow as expected. Another research team studied 329 women who either worked, lived, or gave birth in lower Manhattan within nine months after 9/11, and the results showed that their babies had low birth weight and shorter length, compared to mothers who were not living as close to the WTC.

Ultimately, 22 years later, individuals are still suffering from the exposure of the toxic cloud from 9/11. The studies mentioned above, indicate that the exposure to the toxic cloud leads to genotoxic risks such as cancer and child and fetal development. Unfortunately, the survivors who assisted in finding or treating many Americans ended up struggling themselves from performing a heroic act. This is not the end of the 9/11 era, as researchers are still projecting more individuals to be diagnosed with cancer within the coming years.