The terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September of 2001 were unthinkable. That day left a tragic mark in the memories of Americans, and had a long-lasting economic and political impact, which still affects us fifteen years later. It also initiated an unprecedented set of analyses revealing that many federal and state government agencies, as well as the military and intelligence communities, were not equipped to handle the potential environmental ramifications of a future domestic terror attack.
The events of 9/11 brought out the best in many public servants, ranging from firefighters, emergency medical personnel, to police, and civilians, and while the immediate safety of first responders and the rescue of victims was paramount, these events cast a bright light on the need for foresight and preparedness among government agencies for environmental and public health impacts that result from a terror attack.
The immediate consequences of the 9/11 attacks were numerous.
Air quality was a pressing concern. More than 1.2 million tons of rubble had fallen in one of the most populated neighborhoods in the country; the impact of the collisions and the collapsing buildings reduced concrete, cement, glass, fiberglass, and more into dust which permeated the air in the immediate area, and subsequently dispersed widely. Asbestos had been used as a building material, and the buildings contained large numbers of computers and other electronics, as well as fluorescent lights which released mercury, benzene, dioxins, lead, chromium, and many more chemicals into the air as they burned in a fire fueled by thousands of gallons of jet fuel, and continued to burn for months. With large numbers of pollutants involved, it was impossible to know exactly what to expect, or if any of the chemicals would react o create other toxic substances.
Cleanup was another major hurdle. Debris removal was necessary for rescue efforts, but air conditioning coolant buried deeply below in hot and possibly burning debris posed a potential chemical threat. Waste burial of the potentially contaminated rubble at Fresh Kills landfill on nearby Staten Island was a concern. Wastewater runoff into the surrounding waterways and nearby Hudson River needed to be controlled, and in the area of the Towers, the city’s water supply required monitoring to ensure safe drinking and firefighting water.
The chemical uncertainties and the scale of the cleanup were unlike anything that had happened on American soil. There was no act of war, natural disaster, or industrial accident that easily compares. One study said that the attacks and aftermath were “the most complex emergency response and management challenge ever faced in the nation.”
It wasn’t simply the cleanup, and monitoring of air and water conditions that was urgent in the hours and days following the attacks. Wall Street was under pressure to get everyone back to work as quickly as possible to prevent further economic stress. In addition, residents and businesses in the surrounding area were displaced and needed to return, but the residential, commercial, and office buildings in the Ground Zero vicinity were all potentially contaminated. Carpets, drapes, air filters, building and room air conditioners, and water towers were exposed to toxic dust and needed to be evaluated and properly cleaned.
While there is never any way to fully prepare for a tragedy like September 11th, or for uncertain variables (such as weather or the implications of burning jet fuel and toxic substances,) the need for preparedness in chemical, biological, and radiological attacks suddenly became very clear. A lot was learned from these events, and major efforts were devoted to national security, disaster response, research, and risk assessment in the years following. While every disaster is tragic, whether natural or anthropogenic, our only hope is that we can continue to learn and adapt, in order to take the best possible care of our citizens and environment in the future.
If you or a loved one was part of the events at New York’s Ground Zero, last month New York State extended the deadline for applying for compensation to those who need, or needed, medical care or lost wages as workers or volunteers in the aftermath. The new deadline for filing is September 11, 2018. The NYC 9/11 health page has more information and ways to sign up.