Nine years later, 9/11 workers wonder: will I know cancer?

Many 9/11 workers have related illnesses, including cancer.

As the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks approaches, the Do You Know Cancer team felt that it was important to highlight an issue that is on the minds of many of the survivors, first responders, and volunteers who were at Ground Zero in the days, weeks and months following the disaster. In 2009, the first five firefighters and police died of cancer related to exposures sustained at Ground Zero. The oldest person to lose their life to cancer was only 44 years old. Three died in October, 2009 within a four-day period.

Robert Grossman, a police officer from Harlem, died of a cancerous brain tumor – he was 41. He spent a few weeks volunteering following 9/11. Another police officer, 37-year old Cory Diaz, also died of cancer; Richard Mannetta, a 44-year old firefighter, was the oldest to die of a 9/11-related cancer as of 2009. Another 44-year old firefighter named John McNamara died in September of 2009 and the first woman to die of a related cancer, Renee Dunbar, died in August 2009. She was in her thirties.

Close to 70,000 people were at Ground Zero in the months following the disaster. They were police officers, firefighters, EMTs, construction workers, military personnel, and “regular people” who felt compelled to volunteer with the relief efforts. Many of these people assisted in the cleanup efforts without wearing protective masks that would limit their exposure to the toxic dust and chemicals that lingered at Ground Zero for months after the World Trade Center collapsed. There was an estimated 1.8 million tons of debris. In the air, 90,000 liters of jet fuel lingered, and close to 1,000 tons of carcinogenic asbestos, the only known cause of mesothelioma, a fatal cancer, lay within the rubble. As debris was moved and transported, toxic dust rose into the air, and asbestos fibers became friable. Those without breathing apparatuses and masks inhaled chemicals and airborne carcinogens as they worked. Some did not understand that these exposures might cause illnesses in the future, and some may not have even known that there were toxins present. There was also lead, chlorine, mercury and other airborne by-products released into the air due to the many fires at the site, some that burned for days before they were extinguished.

In July of this year, a bill that would have allotted over $7 billion dollars to those who fell ill after exposures at Ground Zero was rejected by the House of Representatives. It would have given 9/11 rescue workers and volunteers free health care, and would have compensated them for related health costs. In response to the failed bill, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that the people of the United States owe the “people who worked down at 9/11 and whose health has fallen apart because they did what America wanted them to.” The bill was named for a deceased detective, James Zadroga. He reportedly died following a battle with a respiratory illness that he contracted due to exposures at Ground Zero, although a medical examiner asserts that his lung condition was likely a result of prescription drug abuse.

So, what is next for those who have fallen ill?

An estimated 16,000 people had received treatment for illnesses that are attributed to 9/11 exposures back in July, but some doctors say that there’s no real way to determine whether or not their illness is 100% due to exposures sustained at Ground Zero.

For those concerned about developing certain cancers as a result of exposure at Ground Zero, the issue of extended latency periods is a big worry. Some cancers, like mesothelioma, lie dormant for decades. Some newly-diagnosed patients are well into their seventies before they’re diagnosed.

9/11 first responders and volunteers should closely monitor their health, especially respiratory health, because some illnesses are difficult to recognize and diagnose. Mesothelioma is one of those cancers; symptoms are similar to those of the flu or lung cancer, so people are often misdiagnosed initially. The World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program provides free health screenings for people who were exposed to carcinogens following 9/11, including those who worked in the Fresh Kills landfill and on barges that transported debris from Ground Zero. Every year, program participants can receive a physical exam, respiratory tests, and blood tests, along with treatment referrals if necessary. To learn more, visit

Many groups have made it their mission to spread awareness about the illnesses common in those who worked at Ground Zero, including 9/11 Health Now. In an article published on the first of this month, doctor and epidemiologist Philip Landrigan shares the many health issues seen in 9/11 workers – respiratory ailments, gastrointestinal issues, chemosensory conditions (having to do with one’s sense of smell, taste, and other senses) as well as mental issues. Back in 2001, Landrigan anticipated that many, many people would become ill as a result of their time at Ground Zero.

“In the first weeks after the attacks we began to see people such as police officers, firefighters, construction workers, transit workers who had worked at Ground Zero and who were coming in with cough, with terrible nasal irritation, with other health problems, and sort of in an evolving way it dawned on us, through the months of October and November 2001, that we were going to be seeing a great many sick people in the months and years ahead.”

Landrigan’s interview is a must-read, and it sheds light on the many long-term health effects that 9/11 workers may find themselves dealing with in the future.

This Saturday, it’s important to reflect on the events of September 11, 2001 and it is also critical that we remember that some of the effects may not become relevant for people for years to come. While the lives lost on that day are tragic, the lives that will be lost in the future, and those who have lost their lives within the last nine years, are also terribly sad.

The Do You Know Cancer team extend our condolences to those who lost loved ones, friends, co-workers, and neighbors on September 11, 2001.


CBS News

9/11 Health Now

Environmental Health Perspectives

Guardian UK

3 Responses to “Nine years later, 9/11 workers wonder: will I know cancer?”

  1. Andrew Pelt says:

    Insane, can you believe its been almost 10 years to this day. R.I.P. To everyone who died, it was a sad day. 9/11 was a very awful day. It brought us together and made us closer than ever as a nation. All of the brave men and women who helped in the enormous rescue attempt, I salute each and every one of you. There were over 2000 innocent people who died that day, that still gives me the chills thinking about it. Men and women died, to save the lives of others. Over 300 firefighters, dead. Cherish the day. Remember the memories.

  2. Cheryl Brown says:

    I was diagnosed with breast cancer about 2 weeks after the 09/11 attack… the anniversary of the attack affects me in many different ways… what a horrible scarey time in my life!

  3. Efren Simpkins says:

    Cool web site!

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