In fact, the site was awash in harmful fumes and toxic dust. Especially in the days immediately after the towers fell, when investigators estimated that only 20 percent of the workers at the site had masks that would protect their lungs, the air was filled with diesel exhaust, pulverized cement, glass fibers, asbestos, silica, benzene from the jet fuel and lead. On September 11 alone more than 300 workers sought treatment for eye and respiratory problems caused by the pollutants in the air. Soon the official workers at Ground Zero received masks and other protective gear, but volunteers and other workers–like the day laborers and undocumented workers who were hired to clean the dust from nearby office buildings–simply covered their faces with bandannas and hoped for the best.
In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health sponsored a comprehensive study of the health of the rescue and recovery workers at Ground Zero. They found that many of the first responders had developed severe respiratory problems and had persistent symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Other studies agreed: Enormous numbers of workers had sore throats, trouble breathing and “WTC cough.” Science Daily reported that “New York City firemen and emergency personnel exposed to dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings experienced a decrease in lung function capability equal to 12 years of age-related decline during the year following the 9/11 disaster.” Many were gravely ill with kidney problems, silicosis, lung cancer, leukemia and heart disease. Doctors and public health officials traced these illnesses to the polluted air at Ground Zero.
In 2006, then-governor of New York George Pataki signed legislation aimed at expanding benefits for those whose deaths were linked to their cleanup work at the World Trade Center site. Initial efforts to pass a measure that would provide health monitoring and financial aid to Ground Zero workers on the federal level stalled. Finally, in January 2011, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, named after an NYPD officer whose death has been attributed to his work at Ground Zero, was signed into law.
The cleanup and recovery efforts at Ground Zero lasted for more than a year, with crews working around the clock. Construction workers found human remains in several places near the site of the Twin Towers in 2006, while the Environmental Protection Agency spent several years working to clean toxic dust out of downtown apartments. Dust and debris from the September 11th attacks will likely continue to affect downtown Manhattan for years; still, the impressive scale and speed of the cleanup work was a testament to the dedication of the workers and volunteers at the site.
Rebuilding efforts at the World Trade Center site continue. The centerpiece, a 1,776-foot tall skyscraper, is scheduled to open in 2013, and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum is scheduled to open in phases between 2011 and 2013.