9/11 Health Problems Persist, Cleaner Battles Breast Cancer

When the towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, massive volumes of toxic dust were released into the air. In the years to come, researchers would show that the dust contained a hazardous mix of toxic chemicals. Exposure to the toxic dust at Ground Zero has now been linked to many different health problems, such as respiratory conditions and many types of cancer. Unfortunately, the EPA assured responders, residents and other 9/11 victims that the air in lower Manhattan was safe to breathe after the attacks. Former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman recently apologized for this statement, in light of the fact that many responders and survivors continue to battle 9/11-related illnesses.

Many 9/11 responders and residents became ill, but sadly they are not the only ones. The Guardian shares the story of a woman who worked as a cleaner on 9/11. She was cleaning offices at Goldman Sachs on Maiden Lane when the attacks happened. “I was screaming,” she told The Guardian, “screaming ‘We are going to die,’ the stuff was crashing on the window, probably it was pieces of bodies and planes and building, and so many papers, papers …”

The woman recalls, “In one hour, the building was empty,” Yet she, and several others, remained behind. Her boss asked for them to stay and clean up. She says for two and a half days, she did not sleep or get to return home to her 12-year-old son. She cleaned days and nights without any masks and no access to a shower. The woman got food from soldiers on the street. “It was disgusting,” she said. “I looked like a ghost. I was gray from head to foot.”

The woman has a record of excellent health and no family history of cancer, but was diagnosed with breast cancer two months ago. She says doctors found a spot in her lung. She says she never smoked. Very recently, she underwent a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction as part of her cancer treatment. In addition to cancer, she developed post-9/11 anxiety, depression and even contemplated suicide. She also began to drink heavily.

The Guardian reports that this woman is one of many ordinary workers who suffered the toxic aftermath of 9/11, “but who have never been publicly hailed as heroes like the firefighters, cops and workers who cleared the wreckage itself.” The woman says she developed a chronic violent cough in 2003 and barely received treatment until 2009, when she began receiving treatment for 9/11 victims at Mount Sinai.

Mount Sinai is one of the facilities offering free medical treatment and monitoring to 9/11 responders and survivors. It was funded by the Zadroga Act and recently reauthorized for another 75 years. “The doctors and nurses treated me like a human being,” the woman said of her treatment. She says she stopped drinking and her psychological health improved.

“I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me,” she said. “I just want to work, but sometimes my body makes it difficult. I think back to those soldiers standing outside in the debris. They were so young and they would smile and say, ‘Hello, ladies.’ I wonder if they are even still alive.”

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