Lila Nordstrom’s 9-11 awakening came late—five 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 disaster—stories 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 pollution—a 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 workers—all 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.
“Contaminants would rise up in the air and end up in the school,” says Brian Edwards, a 14-year-old sophomore at the time. All that year, he wore a mask to and from Stuyvesant. “It was scary because you didn’t know how bad the air really was.”
That winter parents hired an engineer, who found high levels of asbestos and lead in the building. Education officials stonewalled, until Senator Hillary Clinton forced them to admit the truth about the vents at a hearing in February 2002. When parents filed a lawsuit, the school department agreed to clean the ventilation system—in the summer of 2002.
By then, students and teachers were already getting sick. Of the 224 Stuyvesant employees who responded to a federal survey, half had suffered ailments related to 9-11, including bloody noses, itchy throats, and persistent coughs. Parents heard their kids complain about similar problems, and conducted their own survey of students. Of the 430 responses, two-thirds reported yet more symptoms, from rashes to respiratory infections.
Some kids, like Nordstrom, noticed childhood asthma worsening. Almost from the moment she returned to school, she began experiencing symptoms she hadn’t had in years. Her chest tightened. Her attacks increased. She still suffers bouts of what she calls “a mysterious, deep cough.” Is it coincidence? Or something more?
“It makes me wonder what the connection to 9-11 is,” she says.
Stuyvesant students say they did their best to block out worries at the time. But over the years, they’ve come to grips with their experiences, realizing that they were forced to go back to school months before other students were, that they were duped into returning to a building full of toxins.
Today, their sense of injustice is profound. “We deserve something. They lied like crazy to us, you know what I mean?” says Newman. Since his present job has a health plan, he adds, “I’m motivated by the justice of the cause.”
So are tens of thousands of other 9-11 victims, of course. All those first responders, residents, and office workers were misled by the EPA about the air quality in lower Manhattan, just like the Stuyvesant alum. And plenty of them don’t have adequate health insurance to cover their mounting medical costs—remember those day laborers who cleaned up the downtown skyscrapers?
Stuyvesant students may have an edge in the sympathy department over their older counterparts, as Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer suggests. He responded to their open letter after Nordstrom cornered him at an anti-war demonstration in May. “She made a very compelling argument,” he tells the Voice. Unlike other 9-11 victims, she reminded the politician, Stuyvesant students were minors and thus unable to make their own decisions about whether to return downtown. “All you have to do is look at what has happened to ground zero workers and you say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. There has to be a way to help these kids,'” explains Stringer, whose office is seeking public and private funds to include the students in a tiny 9-11 screening program for uninsured people in Chinatown and other nearby neighborhoods, at Bellevue Hospital. That’s on top of the $16 million that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said the city will allocate to expand the program over the next five years.
On Capitol Hill, though, the students’ argument might not hold much weight. After all, the vast majority of 9-11 victims have gotten little help for their health needs so far. No federal tracking programs exist for residents, office workers, and school children, let alone treatment. Only ground zero workers, whose numbers of respiratory diseases are escalating, have received any funding for medical monitoring—about $102 million at last count. Last week, the administration finally agreed to free up $75 million that’s sitting in the country’s treasury for treatment as well.
“Here it is, five years after 9-11, and the Bush administration has spent not one federal dollar on treatment for ground zero workers,” declares Representative Carolyn Maloney, a Manhattan Democrat who has long pushed for a federal response to the health crisis. Back in 2004, she filed a bill that would give health benefits to a wide array of victims, including Stuyvesant students. Today, however, it’s stuck in committee, with little hope of passage.
“This is a long, protracted battle,” says Amy Rutkin, chief of staff for Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who represents lower Manhattan. She sees some progress: The Bush administration has appointed a 9-11 health czar to coordinate a federal response; an initial report on health problems could come as early as this month. And Rutkin’s boss has filed his own bill to provide health coverage to those who were exposed to the toxic dust and who have gotten sick. Its language includes anyone who “attended school” in a building full of toxins from the World Trade Center disaster.
Still, Rutkin adds, “No one will wave a magic wand and give these students their health insurance tomorrow.”
Nordstrom figured that out in March, after she had sent her first letters to politicians. She was met with silence from Senator Clinton, who’s sponsoring a companion bill to Nadler’s in the Senate, as well as from Senator Chuck Schumer, whose daughter, Jessica, attended Stuyvesant, in the Class of 2002.
Yet Nordstrom is giving Nadler’s latest bill the thumbs up. “It’s just what we wanted,” she says, at a press event for it last week. Standing alongside firefighters, residents, and office workers, she looks ready for the fight ahead. She sounds ready, too. “We’re not asking for anything outrageous,” she observes. “My feeling is that the government was negligent in our case. Frankly, our situation down there was ridiculous.”