TESTIMONY OF JULIE HIRAGA
TEACHER AT PS 89 IN MANHATTAN
REPRESENTING THE UNITED FEDERATION OF TEACHERS
ON AIR QUALITY AND HEALTH ISSUES
AFTER THE SEPT. 11 ATTACK
†BEFORE THE UNITED STATES SENATE
COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS
SUBCOMMITTEE ON CLEAN AIR, WETLANDS, AND CLIMATE CHANGE
FEBRUARY 11, 2002
Good morning, Chairman Lieberman, Senator Clinton and members of the committee. My name is Julie Hiraga. I am a second grade teacher at PS 89 in Manhattan and am here representing Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers. Thank you for this opportunity to testify on the health issues that concern those of us who live and work in Lower Manhattan.†
The brutal attack on the World Trade Center on September 11 was a trauma we are all still learning to overcome, but slowly we are trying to return to normal. At PS 89, one of seven schools in the immediate vicinity of Ground Zero, the teachers and paraprofessionals quickly led children out of harmís way even as the Twin Towers fell and smoke and debris filled the air. Miraculously, not one student was injured or lost in the attack.
Following the disaster, our schools were relocated to other sites, and some were moved yet again. For the children in PS 89, our two moves took their toll, emotionally and educationally. The adjustments were especially disruptive for students who had to take state tests in reading and language arts. Unfortunately, children did not start getting counseling until January. Still, the teachers have been doing their best to keep students calm and focused on learning.
This has been a very frightening time for all of us, but the teachers of PS 89 want to return to our normal routine. Right now, we are scheduled to go back to our home school on Feb. 28, and although thereís a lot of excitement and optimism, thereís also some anxiety about safety. Teachers are concerned about having to keep windows closed and not having an outdoor play space for the children.
Also, the school is on the truck route for debris removal. These huge trucks emit diesel fumes and their cargo throws a lot of dust in the air. Teachers are worried about the long-term impact on their health and wonder if symptoms may not emerge for some time.
Parents, too, are worried about air quality and health issues and we wonder how that will affect student enrollment. Right now, we have only half the students we had before Sept. 11 because parents have moved or withdrawn their children. Now parents of about 30 more students have applied to withdraw their children when we go back to our building because they are concerned about health and safety. The problem is compounded when children hear some classmates talk about their parentsí worries and become fearful.
Having our union as a watchdog has helped allay some of those fears. The UFTís two industrial hygienists and its consulting physician made presentations to our staff and made sure that our questions were answered. They reviewed all the air-testing data and assured us that they will continue reviewing the reports. They said that air testing and sampling of a number of contaminants that could prove harmful to students and staff will continue on a regular schedule, both inside and outside every affected school.
The unionís representatives have also been very responsive to our concerns and needs. They explained what was being done to control the dust, such as watering down the trucks and installing matting under all exterior school doors to hinder dust seepage. They helped our school get a new, more efficient filtration system and a new HEPA vacuum for our custodial staff. They even sent us snacks and towelettes, and that gave us a real morale boost when we needed it.
Weíve also had a chance to see what has happened at the other schools that reopened. Stuyvesant High School was the first to reopen on Oct. 9. Teachers in my school followed events there very closely. Stuyvesant is further from Ground Zero than PS 89, but the fires were still burning when students and staff returned. Many of my colleagues wondered if the air was safe, even though experts who reviewed the sampling data tried to reassure everyone.
Since some staff and students at Stuyvesant complained of respiratory problems, the union asked the federal government to conduct its own evaluation. As a result, on Jan. 29 the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) began the first survey comparing staff symptoms at Stuyvesant High School with those at a high school out of the affected area (Fiorello LaGuardia HS in midtown Manhattan).
We also saw that the unionís experts were not content with acceptable facts and figures alone. They conducted on-site visual inspections of all the affected schools to make sure they were properly cleaned and prepared for reoccupancy. A good example is what happened at the High School for Economics and Finance, which was had been scheduled to reopen on Jan. 30. Both the monitoring data and a preliminary inspection showed that everything was ready. But then additional work was done, releasing new dust and debris. Because union representatives made a follow-up visit on the Sunday before the scheduled reopening, they saw these new potential hazards and kept students and staff from moving back until the board cleaned the school again.
In the meantime, our sister school, IS 89, reoccupied the top two floors of our shared building on Jan. 22. It is doing well, which is encouraging. I also hear that the staffs at PS 150 and PS 234, which had many of the same concerns we had, are glad to be back in their own buildings.
So to sum up, there are lingering concerns about the our studentsí psychological and educational welfare, as well as about parental reactions. All of us at the school have had concerns about air quality and other health hazards in the aftermath of September 11. However, the independent monitoring and involvement of the unionís health and safety experts has helped reassure us.