Health Literacy

New Risks Come To Light On 9/11 Anniversary

Patriot Day

Almost at the same time as millions of Americans paused to remember the worst act of domestic terrorism in the country’s history, researchers at NYU warned New Yorkers, and others, about the dangers of perfluoroalkyl-laced dust that flooded most of Manhattan and much of the Bronx on that fateful day.

So far, many 9/11-related injuries have been trauma wounds from falling debris or psychological wounds due to the nature of the events. However, not all the dangers are that apparent. Much of the plastics in the electronics and furniture inside the World Trade Center had high amounts of perfluorooctanoic acid, a once widely-used chemical that made these materials more flexible. NYU scientists examined over 300 children, and a significant percentage of these individuals had dangerously-elevated triglyceride and LDL cholesterol levels due to PFOA/PFAS exposure on 9/11.

“Our study emphasizes the importance of monitoring the health consequences from 9/11 in children exposed to the dust, and offers hope that early intervention can alleviate some of the dangers to health posed by the disaster,” remarked lead researcher Dr. Leonardo Trasande.

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Until 2002, a number of large chemical companies, including DuPont and 3M, used high levels of these chemicals in a variety of consumer and industrial products, in items ranging from firefighting foam to Teflon. These chemicals were cheap and extremely stable, making them quite attractive to parsimonious industrial concerns.

But as early as the 1940s, these chemicals were also linked to serious health concerns. Eventually, scientists focused on six adverse PFOA health effects:

  • Testicular cancer,
  • Colitis,
  • Kidney cancer,
  • Thyroid disease,
  • Hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol-related heart disease), and
  • PIH (Pregnancy-Induced Hypertension).

By 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency began scrutinizing PFOA’s use because of the rampant ill health effects, and so companies finally began phasing out the chemical.

Legal Issues

Because it is no longer in use, it is easier to argue that PFOA is an inherently dangerous substance, a legal term which means that the chemical’s potential dangers far outweigh its acceptable uses.

As a result, PFOA defendants may be strictly liable for the damages they cause in this area. In other words, no matter how careful the company was, it may still be responsible for economic damages and noneconomic damages, as well as additional punitive damages.

To obtain compensation in strict liability cases, victim/plaintiffs need only prove cause. And in toxic tort cases, an unusual spike in the number of illnesses in a given area that cannot be explained by anything other than exposure to toxic substances, a legal doctrine known as res ipsa loquitur (“the thing speaks for itself”), is usually sufficient to establish cause in civil court.

Deadly diseases often have extremely long incubation periods, and if the victim has either no symptoms or only some generic symptoms, such as coughing, the illness may be impossible to diagnose. Even if the diagnosis occurs after the two-year statute of limitations has expired, the victim may still have a claim, because of the discovery rule. This doctrine states that plaintiffs must bring damage claims within two years after they discover their injuries and learn about a connection between their injuries and the defendant’s’ conduct.

Assume that the victim attended a Manhattan school on September 11, 2001. Twenty years later, the victim develops early stage kidney cancer, and as there is no family history or other obvious risk factors, the doctors trace the disease to 9/11. In this case, the victim would have until 2023 to file a damage claim.

9/11 caused many long-term health effects that are just now coming into focus.

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Scott Aadal is a freelance writer who likes to discuss current events, and contributes articles to promote legal awareness. You can follow him on LinkedIn.

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