Fallout from 9/11 Attacks On Par With Fukushima and Chernobyl, Researcher Says

9/11 - World Trade Center
An American flag flies near the base of the destroyed World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Peter Morgan/REUTERS

The U.S. government has spent the past six years pouring millions of dollars into researching deadly diseases linked to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. But it has never officially warned people who lived and worked in Lower Manhattan during 9/11 that the attacks turned the area into a breeding ground for cancer.

At a conference at the New York Academy of Medicine on Wednesday, researchers shared fresh evidence of elevated rates of cancer, heart and respiratory disease and post-traumatic stress disorder linked to Ground Zero. One doctor even stated that the dangerous health consequences of the attacks are on par with those of the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986 and Fukushima, Japan in 2011.

Previewing a yet-to-be-released paper he wrote with several colleagues overseas, Dr. Roberto Lucchini of the World Trade Center Health Program at Mount Sinai in New York told attendees that while the September 11 attacks resulted in heightened cancer rates for those living and working near Ground Zero, Fukushima, so far, has not.

"We are trying to look at what happened in each of these situations and what happened afterward to try to derive lessons" that could lead to better responses to environmental disasters in the future, he told the audience of doctors, psychologists and survivors during the one-day event. Chernobyl also led to cancer within the surrounding population, he noted. Because the incubation period can take years, doctors say it is possible Fukushima will eventually result in elevated cancer rates when more time passes.

In his study, Lucchini compared the findings of health programs established around the world in the aftermath of major environmental disasters. His analysis began with a chemical accident in Seveso, Italy, in 1976. "Only in Seveso was the number of exposed individuals known with reasonable certainty," he said. Most of the major incidents he looked at, like the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984, stemmed from major industrial slip-ups, resulting in tougher regulations and better efforts at prevention, he said.

What made 9/11 different, Lucchini noted, was that the environmental disaster stemmed from a terrorist attack.

His report was one of several doctors presented at the conference that builds on a growing body of research about the serious health consequences of the 9/11 attacks. New research cited this month from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene showed elevated rates of cancer among 9/11 rescue and recovery workers and civilian survivors when compared with New York State's general population. "Prostate cancer contributed substantially to the total excess of cancer across all sites," the Health Department said, citing data from the World Trade Center Health Registry, which tracks more than 71,000 rescue and recovery workers and survivors.

With the exception of Chernobyl and Bhopal, the 9/11 attacks have affected the greatest number of people, with as many as 400,000 at risk for cancer, diseases and mental-health illnesses, according to the World Trade Center Health Program. (This compares with 600,000 at Chernobyl and 500,000 at Bhopal, Lucchini found).

Lucchini's report was one of many that highlighted Ground Zero for its unprecedented number and combination of diseases, cancers and mental-health illnesses. Other participants at the conference included doctors from New York University, the New York City Fire Department, the World Trade Center Health Registry and the World Trade Center Health Program at Mount Sinai.

Studying the immediate health effects of the toxic cloud released after 9/11 took many months, said Dr. Joan Reibman, from the New York University School of Medicine. She and her team "went door to door, building to building," speaking to residents. Like many of the researchers who presented their work at the conference, Reibman found that many 9/11 survivors continue to suffer from serious respiratory symptoms 15 years after the attacks.

"What's happened to our population over time? Many have gotten better, but many have had persistent to severe respiratory symptoms," she said. An examination of the lungs of residents living near Ground Zero shows the inflammation of cells, with "particles of asbestos, fly ash particle and degraded fibrous glass buried deep in the lung," Reibman noted. "It looks like emphysema, but it isn't emphysema."

Researchers presenting papers on Wednesday showed that those injured on 9/11 faced heightened risk of both physical and mental health problems with greater chances of suffering from PTSD and new onset heart disease than the general population. Severe injuries on September 11 were associated with increased risk of respiratory and heart disease years after the attacks, they said.

Dr. Mary McLaughlin, from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, presented data suggesting a link between cardiovascular risks, sleep apnea and mental-health issues in patients who breathed in the toxic dust of Ground Zero. "Being in the cloud seemed to lead to greater risk of PTSD and a stiffening of the heart," she said.

Those who were in the World Trade Center Towers at the time of the attacks were 30 percent more likely to have PTSD and 50 percent more likely to be frequent binge drinkers in the decade after 9/11, according to data from the World Trade Center Health Registry.

Workers with 9/11-related chronic health conditions were also more likely to experience early retirement or job loss, with the likelihood of early retirement and job loss increasing considerably when the worker also had PTSD, the registry said.

Doctors attending the event told Newsweek that studying the health effects of 9/11 could lead to groundbreaking research, particularly on cancer and PTSD. The consensus was less clear on when downtown Manhattan became safe again. While research at the conference showed that many exposed to toxic dust on 9/11 or shortly afterwards appeared to suffer the most, some doctors said they have seen new patients come in with ailments that could be from more continuous exposure. These doctors asked not to be named, because their jobs and research into the health consequences of 9/11 rely primarily on government funding, which they worry could be taken away. As one doctor put it: "It's politically charged."

In an email to Newsweek, the New York Department of Health, which measures street-level pollution throughout Manhattan every year, said its air quality data for downtown shows pollutants are "relatively similar to average levels throughout Manhattan."