Smoke inhalation injuries can be silent killers. The symptoms may not be immediately visible or obvious. The impact of inhalation can take years to manifest itself.
The 9/11 cataclysm taught us how hard it is to predict the long-term effects of toxic inhalation. The World Trade Center plume exposed approximately 500,000 people — firefighters, police, emergency workers, residents in the area — to a poisonous brew. It is an ongoing executioner more than a decade later.
Research scientists have linked smoke inhalation to at least sixty types of cancer found in 9/11 survivors. Dozens of other serious ailments have been similarly connected.
“I don’t think even Al Qaeda thought this would happen,” John Mormando told The New York Times. “It was a bonus for them. They thought they killed 3,000 people that day, but no one could have thought this would still be killing people.”
Mormando, a commodities broker working near the Towers on 9/11, had to deal with breast cancer as a result of his exposure to the malignant environment.
Dr. Rachel Zeig-Owens, an epidemiologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, told The Scientist she’s not taken off guard by the delayed onset of these medical problems.
“I guess I’m not surprised because some (conditions) have longer latencies,” Zeig-Owens said. “So, cancer, for one. Ten years ago, we had the first study that was in The Lancet and I was a little bit surprised because…we were starting to see that there was an elevated cancer risk. Now I’m expecting it because of the compounds that were on the site. Because it wasn’t only the office buildings that were pulverized. It was also the jet fuel that was burning for months, until Christmas. But now we’re also dealing with the aging factors….”
While the experts continue to monitor the 9/11 cases, a new smoke inhalation crisis has emerged. And, it appears to be a tragic dilemma of our own making.
For decades, the military and its contractors have incinerated waste in large, uncontrolled open pits when other methods of disposal were unavailable. A jet fuel-based propellant was frequently used as the accelerant. Starting in 2001 in Afghanistan and 2003 in Iraq, burn pits were the primary tool used to destroy waste.
The waste in these pits was a who’s who of toxins: chemicals, paints, human waste, animal carcasses, styrofoam, rubber, plastics, metal/aluminum cans, vehicles, weapons, and ammunition were torched.
The pits were pervasive: by 2010, there were a total of 273 burning areas in the two war-torn countries. All too often, they were located in fairly close proximity to combat housing units and workstations.
There were over 4 million service people in these areas. That does not include visiting civilians or locals.
The Department of Defense has estimated 3.5 million people may have been exposed to smoke from the pits.
The results of smoke inhalation in Iraq and Afghanistan slowly began to emerge when the armed forces returned home to the United States. Coughs, shortness of breath, headaches, and changes in mental state — these symptoms, in otherwise healthy, young people, cropped up in doctors’ offices with increasing frequency.
According to Megan Stack in The New York Times, more than 200,000 troops who served in Iraq or Afghanistan “believe they suffer permanent damage from exposure to burn pits.” These veterans have found themselves in a paradoxical Catch-22 situation: there’s not much research that directly ties their complaints to the smoke inhalation, so the government has been reluctant to provide sufficient treatment.
Stack points out that a senior official from the Department of Veterans Affairs testified before Congress that over 70 percent of veterans’ disability claims from 2007 to 2020 connected to burn pits were denied.
Recently, however, the situation has improved. Focused advocacy has raised public and media awareness –for the last two years, comedian Jon Stewart and a group of 9/11 first responders have been particularly effective.
This is what Stewart told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee: “Go back to your district and dig a 10-acre pit and put everything that the town discards into that pit and burn it with jet fuel and diesel fuel. And then burn that pit 24-hours a day, seven days a week. But tell your constituents, don’t worry, 15 years from now, we’re going to convene a panel to discuss whether or not the health issues you’re having are in your head or not. And we are going to make you get a lawyer to prove it.”
Pretty powerful stuff. At this writing, legislation is pending in Congress. For the first time since 9/11, the gruesome nature of smoke inhalation is getting the consequential attention it warrants.