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9/11 Dust Leaves a Medical Legacy

Joe Cantlupe, for HealthLeaders Media, September 8, 2011

On the train to New York on September 12, 2001, the day after the devastating attacks, I could see the smoke still rising from the debris that was once the World Trade Center's Twin Towers. Closer to the site, as I walked the streets littered with burned cars, the air was heavy with a metallic smell that still haunts me today.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed that day in the suicide attacks in New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania, but the ruinous assault continues, in a sense. That smoke was part of the problem, and questions remain from the disaster's odious dust. Physicians and hospitals are playing key roles in determining the medical extent of the 9/11 aftermath in New York. Ten years after the attacks, continual and chronic medical conditions plague the people who worked at Ground Zero.

I was a journalist then, too, sent to cover the horrific event. As another reporter and I walked the cluster of blocks near the fallen WTC, we knew that the lingering smoke and acrid smells could only foretell hazards ahead for public health. After holding handkerchiefs to our mouths, we realized these were inadequate protection from the fumes and choking swirl of soot. We joined many others in seeking out masks. Pharmacies were selling out fast. Finally, we found a couple that would stanch the odor and, we hoped, the suspicious particles. 

The following week in New York was a blur of sadness, dust, and despair. The clouds of smoke lingered, burning throats and stinging the eyes of thousands of volunteers who worked on search and rescue. We talked to people who waited in long lines scouring lists of wounded and maimed, hoping to see a husband, daughter, a friend, holding pictures of missing people and telling their stories. They, too, were exposed to the noxious air quality—but that was the least of their concerns.

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