It’s been almost 20 years since two commercial airliners crashed into New York City’s World Trade Center Towers, killing over 2,600 people.

The subsequent collapse of the towers created an enormous toxic plume dense with pulverized concrete at what became known as Ground Zero. The thousands of first responders who worked to dig out bodies and clean up the site spent months breathing in a slurry of asbestos, smoldering toxins and dust.

Twenty years later, for most New Yorkers, 9/11 is an historic horror. But for many of those first responders who have watched their bodies fail over time, their limitations are a daily reminder of a selfless decision made a generation ago.

“Their sacrifice, on that day, resulted in the successful evacuation of over 25,000 civilians,” Dr. David Prezant, chief medical officer for the Fire Department of the City of New York told Capital Tonight.  “And they ran into those towers, many of them knowing that collapse was imminent.”

A new report from the FDNY World Trade Center Health Program titled “Health Impacts on FDNY Rescue/Recovery Workers 20 Years: 2001 – 2021” shows that 75% of those first responders are facing long-term illnesses linked to their service.

“On that day and in the days, weeks and months that followed, they were exposed to toxic fumes and particulate matter. They inhaled it. They swallowed it. It got into their nose, their throat and deep into their lungs,” Prezant said. “The systemic results of this exposure are still unfolding.”

Out of 15,5000 firefighters and EMS workers, 11,300 have had at least one World Trade Center-related condition, as certified by the federal government. These include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, severe emphysema, bronchitis, asthma, pulmonary fibrosis, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), most cancers, mental health conditions (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, substance abuse) and musculoskeletal injuries.

“And we will be petitioning NYOSH (New York Occupational Safety & Health) to add cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases to the World Trade Center Coverage condition list,” Prezant said. “But it’s been a long battle.”

Prezant told Capital Tonight they are just beginning to look at the neurologic consequences of this kind of exposure.

“It’s very difficult to tease out cognitive defects, which do exist,” he explained.