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Lila Nordstrom's 9-11 awakening came latefive years late, to be exact. Last fall, as she entered her final year at Vassar College, she finally began noticing all the headlines about the fallout from the World Trade Center disasterstories about people getting sick from the toxic dust, for example. In January, she read about the premature death of a first responder who had worked on the pile, four blocks from Stuyvesant High, where Nordstrom had started her senior year, and where she and her classmates would spend the next several months breathing air of much the same quality.
In February, she read about residents and office workers who've gotten ill and are now suing the Environmental Protection Agency for telling the public the air in lower Manhattan was fit to breathe (see "Truth Out," February 28). And then, in March, she went to a career forum, where academic advisers warned that entry-level positions offer low salaries and scant benefits these days. Nordstrom, just shy of graduation, had an epiphany of sorts. "I thought, What if I develop some kind of illness because of 9-11?'" says Nordstrom, now 22 and living in Chelsea, working and without a health plan. "And what if I don't have insurance? I'd be screwed."
At home, she composed an open letter to her elected officials. She laid out the EPA's false assurances, as well as the city's promise that Stuyvesant had been wiped entirely free of WTC-related pollutiona promise that turned out to be untrue. Noting that 3,000 or so alumni went to the Chambers Street high school during the 2001-2002 academic year, she wrote:
"As victims of 9/11, and, especially, victims of the misinformation campaign, we served as draftees' in the media campaign to reassure the American people. At the least, in recognition of the risks we undertook simply by attending school, we should be guaranteed health insurance for the rest of our lives."
She urged city and federal lawmakers to back a bill that would give Stuyvesant students the same coverage some first responders already receive: medical monitoring and, for those who develop pollution-related diseases, treatment. Nordstorm e-mailed the letter to friends, who passed it along to their friends. She later sent a mass mailing to all 500 students in the Stuyvesant Class of 2002, asking them to sign and spread the word. Students wrote to fellow alums on Facebook, the networking website. Nordstrom posted the letter on a blog, and the alumni magazine ran a blurb about it.
The students are an obvious constituency. "There's a fair amount of enthusiasm for this idea," says Anna Cummings, of the Class of 2003, an active organizer. To date, the letter has drawn 170 signatures and counting.
Some would say they're late to the movement. For years, frustrated activists, aided by a handful of local lawmakers, have tried to call attention to the health effects of 9-11. First responders, residents, office workersall have asked for health coverage for people exposed to Trade Center dust. Activists have included "school children" on their list of neglected victims; six schools, with a total of more than 23,000 students, sit within blocks of ground zero. But Stuyvesant kids have stayed out of the fight, not testifying at hearings, not lobbying on Capitol Hill.
"This is the first I'm hearing about the Stuyvesant kids," reports Congressman Vito Fossella, a Staten Island Republican leading the push to address unmet health needs for what he calls the "innocent people who had to live in the aftermath of 9-11." He thinks their newfound activism comes at the right time. Five years after September 11, he says, the public can no longer ignore the growing health crisis. Indeed, last week's findings from the Mount Sinai 9-11 study showing that seven out of 10 ground zero workers have developed new respiratory illnesses pretty much confirms the crisis.
"Anyone who has been affected should state your case now," Fossella advises. "Or else."
Nordstrom and friends may be late, it seems, but they're not yet forgotten.
To hear the students tell it, anxiety about the fallout from 9-11 has always been at least in the backs of their minds. Stuyvesant students evacuated their building as the 110-story twin towers came crashing down. They ran north, engulfed by clouds of dust and smoke.
Within one month, on October 9, they were ordered back to Stuyvesant High, with official word that the building had been properly cleaned. Education officials assured their parents that the city had spent $1 million on a full asbestos abatement. Four months later, families would discover the vents hadn't been wiped at all.
Even with the government assurances, students couldn't ignore the danger signs. There were police checkpoints along Chambers Street, manned by cops wearing gas masks. Inside the school, signs were posted warning them not to drink from water fountains or open windows. Then came the engineers dressed in orange suits. They visited classrooms almost daily, setting up equipment, taking air samples.
"They'd say to us, Everything is great,'" recalls Danny Newman, of the Class of 2002, who works at a Manhattan financial firm today. "It was surreal."
It didn't help that the students could look out their classroom windows and see the gaping hole at ground zero. They could watch the first responders working on the pile, hauling rubble to the Hudson River pier next to their building. Every day, for 24 hours straight, trucks would thunder past the classrooms and unload debris onto a nearby barge, bound for Staten Island.