The Cost of Breathing

“Run, and run north”

 

By the time Marilena Christodoulou arrived at Stuyvesant on the morning of September 11, the kids were gone.

She had been driving down through the confusion on Fifth Avenue, flashing the Stuyvesant Emergency Team pass she had been issued as President of the Parents’ Association, unsure of why she, just a parent, should be allowed through, unsure of what she would find at Stuyvesant when she arrived.

What she found was a nearly empty building.

A little after 10 a.m., as the second tower had been about to fall, the administration defied Board of Education (BOE) instructions, flung open the northern doors of the school, and began evacuating the students by the hundreds.

“They told the students to run, and run north,” Christodoulou said. “There was no evacuation plan, there was nothing, nothing, nothing.”

Freshmen tried to stick together, or found an upperclassman or a teacher who could help them navigate the unfamiliar city.  Some were crying, and some walked stone-faced; some kept their eyes trained forward until they had reached the Upper West Side, and some looked back to see the bridge become engulfed by an avalanche of smoke.

Christodoulou spent the next two days answering parents’ phone calls.

“There were kids who didn’t go home for two days—they couldn’t—so they slept at some other kid’s house. Phones were down, satellite services were down, and they could not reach their parents since cell phones were not allowed in school,” she said. “And that was the first thing that was horrible.”

 

Four Weeks Later

 

By September 20, students and staff were relocated to Brooklyn Technical High School. Their foster school was welcoming, but fitting classes for an extra 3,000 students posed a logistical nightmare, as well as potential safety hazards.

Ultimately, the administrators decided to hold classes for Brooklyn Tech students from 7:15 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., and classes for Stuyvesant students from 1:30 p.m. to 6:23 p.m.

It was draining, to say the least, and parents began pressuring the BOE for a return to Stuyvesant.

Stuyvesant, however, was being used as a staging center for first responders. The BOE would have to regain control of the building, and before reoccupation, the PA wished to address concerns about contamination that may have occurred with the infiltration of the dust cloud on the morning of 9/11 and subsequent exposure as first responders traipsed in and out of the building.  Clean-up concerns centered upon potential contamination of the ventilation system, the carpets, the seat upholstery in the theater; every crevice of the building posed cause for legitimate worry.

“You had a very fast-changing, uncontrolled situation in terms of the potential for contaminants to find their way into Stuy,” said David Newman, a former industrial hygienist at the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and member of the PA.

While some parents just wanted the students to return to a regular classroom schedule, others felt that addressing health risks should take priority.

“It was the beginning of a very long and bitter and divisive conversation within the parent body, largely through the arena of the [PA], whether Stuy should reopen,” Newman said.

NYCOSH took small samplings for asbestos. “They were not what’s called representative, not a comprehensive environmental assessment or sample,” Newman said. “We [found], not high levels of asbestos, but they were unacceptable […] we were quite confident they did not exist prior to 9/11, so we were fairly concerned.”

With pressure from the PA, the BOE agreed to conduct a full asbestos abatement program prior to the students’ re-entry. The BOE also provided verbal assurance that the ventilation system had been cleaned, filters had been upgraded, and outside-air intake had been blocked. It promised that the swimming pool would be drained and cleaned, sidewalks and the Tribeca bridge would be cleaned, a dust control strategy would be implemented, the school would be monitored for contaminants, and the results would be shared with an expert hired by the PA.

But the BOE, of course, was not required to await the PA’s evaluation of cleanup protocols or test results.

And so on October 9, less than one month after 9/11, the students returned to Stuyvesant.

 

Fire Burning, Cauldron Bubble

 

The air was cooling, the way it does by October, but the familiar crisp walk down Chambers Street was transformed that fall. First there were the police checkpoints, five of them, and then four blocks to the left was the pile, and the fires that would burn until February. Directly to the right, at Pier 25, right outside Stuyvesant’s doorstep, was the barge, where hundreds of trucks dumped thousands of pounds of debris for daily transportation away from lower Manhattan.

Inside the school, students were visiting the nurse with headaches and nosebleeds.

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Christine Todd Whitman, had assured the city within days after 9/11 that the “air was safe to breathe.” President George Bush had called for “a return to normalcy.” Wall Street was up and running, and the Stuy kids were back in school. Things would be okay.

But walking down Chambers Street told a different story.  “You had workers in hazmat suits at the corner of Chambers and West Street,” Christodoulou recalled.  “So it was safe for a fourteen-year-old […] to breathe everything, but an adult at the same location had to wear a complete moon-suit with a respirator? It made no sense, so it was clearly a lie.”

Galvanized by concern, the PA successfully pressured the BOE to implement daily monitoring of the air inside and outside of school. It also hired H. A. Bader Consultants Inc., an environmental consulting engineering firm, to review the BOE’s test results and protocols.

The samples, taken inside and around the school, were tested for contaminants released by the excavation operations and fires at Ground Zero which are known to pose significant health risks: asbestos, lead, crystalline silica, dioxins, carbon monoxide, diesel and gasoline exhaust, PCBs, heavy metals, and benzene and other volatile organic compound.

The measurements were ambiguous at times: at some locations, results were within the EPA’s regulatory limits. At others, contaminant levels were higher outside of Stuyvesant than at Ground Zero. The push went both ways, and progress was slow.

By November, the BOE had drained and cleaned the swimming pool and cleaned the bridge, but trucks continued to rumble past Stuyvesant with debris.  Filters were upgraded, by January, to a more effective design, but not to one that was effective enough. And the BOE still had not cleaned the ductwork of the mechanical ventilation system, the primary route of entry for outdoor contaminants, despite the PA’s persistent requests.

The same tension between the PA and BOE could be found amongst parents. “A fairly substantial percentage of parents […] felt that the issue of potential environmental contamination and health harm was nonexistent and sidetracking their kids from having an opportunity to receive a quality education at Stuy,” Newman said.

“There was a just as substantial, if not more substantial, percentage of parents [who] felt that the most important thing at that point in time was ensuring the health of their kids,” he said.

Parents of all viewpoints were faced with a gut-wrenching decision of whether to send their children back to an environment that could potentially be harmful to their health, or to sacrifice their seat at an elite city school based upon, as of yet, unproven concerns.

“There were all kinds of crazy fights. People would say, ‘Well, David, your daughter’s at school. I’m sure you wouldn’t send her to school if there’s a risk.’ Well, there’s a question of how much risk,” Newman said.

“Part of my role, as far as I shaped it, was to ensure people understood what the risks were and were not. We didn’t want to understate it, but we didn’t want to overstate it either. It’s very hard to talk about the concept of risk.”

And so testing continued, arguments grew louder, requests were rebuffed, and each morning, as autumn progressed to winter, the students and teachers continued down Chambers Street, hoping that the destruction of 9/11 had ended on 9/11, or preferring not to think about it at all.

 

“Our children are getting sick.”

 

The conversations brewing within the PA represented just one layer of emerging activism. At the office of Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Class of ’65 and former SU President, the activity was feverish.

“It was an event unlike any we had ever experienced as individuals in the office,” Nadler’s Chief of Staff, Amy Rutkin, said. “There was the same amount of heartbreak and fear that every other New Yorker was feeling, except that we had the added responsibility of representing Ground Zero.”

Whitman’s pronouncement that the World Trade Center (WTC) air was clean was met with the same skepticism among the Nadler staff as it was at the PA.  The staff was worried, and began pouring tremendous effort and resources into drafting a “white paper,” which detailed evidence that the federal government had lied about the state of the environment in lower Manhattan.

The biggest challenge proved to be garnering the right attention. “There was a national prerogative to get everything back and functioning, to show our country’s resilience after 9/11,” Rutkin said. “So as we were making these statements, there were many people, many business interests, that were not happy, because in essence we were threatening things like economic activity.”

Republicans controlled the House of Representatives at the time, and so Nadler was not in the position to schedule a hearing.  He would need the attention of the Democrat-controlled Senate.

It was at this point that the parent, teacher, and student activism at Ground Zero schools and among Ground Zero workers and residents, combined with their local representatives’ efforts, sounded a collective voice that could no longer be ignored by the EPA.

The EPA’s ombudsman hosted public hearings, during which members of the community—first responders, workers, residents, and parent and student representatives from schools like Stuyvesant—shared their anecdotal experiences.   The hearings, which lasted hours, bolstered by the white paper, ultimately caught the attention of former Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), who insisted upon a Senate field hearing.

The hearing took place on February 11, 2002, before the Senate’s Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, and Climate Change. Nadler, Christodoulou, the BOE, and a slew of environmental and health experts testified.

“Our children are getting sick,” Christodoulou said at the hearing, calling for the relocation of the Pier 25 barge and comprehensive cleaning of the Ground Zero schools and ventilation systems.

“We are also concerned about the possible delayed health effects (like cancer) 10-20 years from now from exposure to the chemicals in the air,” she said.

Next to the measurements and testimony brought against the government, “the board of education looked like fools,” Christodoulou said. “People started laughing. It was a joke. It was a sad joke.”

 

Four Months Later

 

Following the hearings, the PA considered legal action. It consulted Richard Ben-Veniste, a prosecutor on the Watergate Task Force and a graduate of Stuyvesant’s Class of ’60, who provided his services to the PA pro-bono.

Despite controversy within the PA, in April 2002, the parents ultimately voted, by a margin of two to one, to authorize the PA to proceed with legal action if necessary.

By that time, the outdoor air quality had improved, but measurements taken inside the building showed that contaminants were still entering: samples from ducts and unit ventilators contained lead dust at two to thirty times EPA regulatory guidelines, though, according to PA reports, the BOE withheld these results for six weeks, only releasing them under the PA’s threat of litigation

At the same time, the PA initiated its own health study, reporting that of the hundreds of families surveyed, two-thirds of students had suffered new incidences of illness since their return to Stuyvesant.

Entering into June, the BOE agreed to clean the ductwork and unit ventilators, as well as upgrade the filters over the summer.

According to Christodoulou and the PA minutes from the time, the BOE thereafter reneged on the agreement, but following threats of litigation, reversed the decision.

And so over the summer, the BOE cleaned.

“But kids like Peter, my son, who were there for a whole year, were exposed,” Christodoulou said.

 

Four Years Later

 

Lila Nordstrom (’02) would be graduating from college soon, and, as most college students realize at some point, she would have to find herself health insurance.

But in 2006, and as a member of a Stuyvesant class that had attended school in the immediate wake of 9/11, things were a bit more complicated. It was pre-Affordable Care Act, so the price of health insurance was sky-high, college graduates could not stay on their parents’ health plans, and, in some states, it was legal to discriminate based on perceived pre-existing health conditions.

“I had the experience of being rejected from basically every health plan in the state [of California] over concerns about my 9/11 exposures,” Nordstrom said. “I was still suffering from bad asthma symptoms but no one in my family had adult asthma, and my medicine was $100 a month. […] By 2006, we knew that we had been sent back too early. I was just looking at how that might affect our lives, not just for health reasons, but also financially.”

Nordstrom started to become involved in the survivor community, and soon realized that there was well-funded research and activism among first- responders, local workers, and residents, but not among former-students at Ground Zero schools, many of whom had dispersed after high school.

Faced with the reality of affording health care, Nordstrom started an organization called StuyHealth as a way to reach out to other students in similar situations, advocate for 9/11 legislation, and promote research.

“I felt like it was important that there be someone from our actual cohort who was connected to those discussions, so we wouldn’t be a missing link in the conversation,” she said.

First responders were getting sick, but there were still questions about the health effects of attending Stuyvesant. People were rightfully concerned about what the trajectory for people with our exposure looks like,” Nordstrom said.

And already, there were cases.

Like Nordstrom, Amit Friedlander (’02) was about to graduate college. He had a job lined up, and plans set to travel the world. And then a couple of days before his flight, he went for a routine check-up at the doctor’s.

“It took a few weeks to get a diagnosis,” he said. “While you’re waiting for a diagnosis and you know you might have cancer, that’s really scary.”

Friedlander was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a white-blood-cell cancer. While the diagnosis was unexpected—he had assumed the fatigue and illness he experienced while in college were simply a result of hard work—he immediately thought back to his nightmarish senior year at Stuyvesant.

“[At the time,] it had made logical sense that [the air] might not be clean, but we didn’t know for sure and there weren’t that many people who were willing to switch schools,” said Friedlander, who was not only in his last year at Stuyvesant, but also Senior Caucus President.

But four years later, he was confident that his exposure was the cause of what later became six months of cancer treatment.

Friedlander became involved with StuyHealth, speaking out about his own illness to alert others to the fact that people were getting sick. “All those years I’d been showing symptoms, and I’d never stopped to think, ‘maybe this is something more serious,’” he said. “So I wanted other students to at least be more vigilant.”

Now, ten years later, Friedlander is recovered and out of remission.

 

Since Zadroga

 

In January of 2011, President Barack Obama signed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, establishing the WTC Health Program, which provides health benefits to those affected by the September 11 attacks.

“Needless to say, that was no small feat,” Rutkin said. “I’m very proud of the work we did. I personally lament that we failed to get the EPA itself to take a full-fledged responsibility, but in lieu of that, I’m glad that we at least have the government taking responsibility for the damage they did, with the Zadroga bill.”

Within Nadler’s office and at organizations like StuyHealth, much of the current activity centers on helping people navigate the WTC Health Program.

Nordstrom, who has become a liaison for alumni with questions about these issues, estimates that at least six students from her graduating class have been diagnosed with cancers or autoimmune diseases believed to be related to 9/11 exposure. Then there are the numerous students who have more common problems, like asthma, a chronic cough, or gastrointestinal issues.

“It was […] a terrible lesson in government,” Rutkin said. “[Seeing] the government at its worst, what it’s capable of doing.”

And yet, in other ways, the process represented what government can be, in the best of situations. Toward the end of our interview, I asked Christodoulou if she had ever anticipated becoming a central figure in the 9/11 cleanup effort, or finding herself testifying before Congress.

“Of course I didn’t,” she said. “I didn’t bargain for this. But you have to fight for what you believe in. That’s what we do in this country.” Sonia Epstein

Sonia Epstein

Sonia Epstein ('17) served as Editor-in-Chief of The Stuyvesant Spectator from 2016-2017.

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