Testimony of Jenna Orkin, mother of Ground Zero Student
I am the mother of a 17-year-old boy who was a student at Stuyvesant High School four blocks north of Ground Zero on September 11.
In a statement that will undoubtedly resonate for years to come, on September 14, Christy Todd Whitman declared the air downtown to be safe. So, on October 9, Stuyvesant reopened to cries of, "Get back to normal!" and, "Show the terrorists!" Wall Street was up and running again so all was right with the world.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, the week that Stuyvesant returned to its building was the week that Dr. Thomas Cahill of U.C. Davis conducted studies a mile north of Ground Zero that revealed levels of very- and ultra-fine particulates that were higher than at the Kuwaiti oil fields.
For the next eight months, Stuyvesant got a double whammy of toxic waste: Not only did they have the WTC site to the south. They also had it on their north doorstep for that was where the waste transfer barge stayed while being loaded with the debris that was to be carted away to Staten Island. This placement was in violation of state law but in the so-called “emergency” that prevailed for the eight months of the cleanup (and what sort of emergency was it, exactly, after the first few weeks when it was clear no one else would have survived? A real estate emergency? An economic emergency?) Environmental laws were thrown to the four toxin-laden winds. The barge operation was host to diesel cranes and idling diesel trucks that worked round the clock seven days a week. According to the American Lung Association of Pennsylvania, I believe, diesel contains dozens of toxins and carcinogens.
How was Stuyvesant equipped to handle this onslaught? The school's filtration system was about 10% effective until the end of January when it was upgraded to 40% effectiveness. Although we had been told the school had undergone a thorough cleanup including the ventilation system, we later learned that in fact the ventilation system had not been cleaned.
Particulate Matter 2.5 - dust that is small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and not come out again - was often higher at Stuyvesant than at Ground Zero. Isocyanates and tetrachloroethane were high when they were measured but after the troubling results, they weren't measured again. Lead in the ventilation system, of which wipe samples were taken only when parents threatened to sue the Board of Education, was thirty times the level one would expect to find on the floor. (There is no official standard for lead in ventilation systems.) Asbestos was found at 250 times normal limits in the auditorium which had been used as a triage center.
Despite all these findings, the Board of Education (now renamed the Department of Education) continues to maintain the building is and always has been safe. The lead, they said after the results of the wipe samples were announced, would stay in the walls. The asbestos, they said after the results of the auditorium samples were announced, would stay in the carpet.
On February 7, 2002, Deputy Chancellor David Klasfeld wrote to parents, "I can only conclude from the [Parent Association's] report's use of sensationalistic language (e.g. "Diesel fumes are carcinogenic") that the intent of this report is not to provide parents with useful information but rather, to cause further stress and divisiveness to the Stuyvesant community and to damage the school's mission for educational excellence... [T]he report matter-of-factly claims that “diesel fumes are carcinogenic" without... present[ing] any evidence or exposure data to support these specious claims."
High levels of lead had been found in the Stuyvesant gym where it could be inhaled deeply and in the cafeteria where it could settle on students' food. Mr. Klasfeld wrote, "While lead can cause several adverse health effects, these are usually from prolonged exposure to the dust from the metal or when children consume lead-based paint." Perhaps Mr. Klasfeld believed that while lead-based paint was not on the menu, lead on rye was o.k. fare. He continued: "known adverse health effects from these contaminants are generally the result of prolonged, occupational type exposure." Undoubtedly, in his view, studying is not an occupation because students don't get paid and teaching is not an occupation because it is not usually associated with
exposure to lead poisoning.
In spite of the fact that FEMA had allocated 20 million dollars to clean the Ground Zero schools, the Board of Education refused to clean the ventilation system of Stuyvesant until parents, using the pro bono services of attorney Richard Ben-Veniste of Watergate fame, threatened to sue. Now that the asbestos has been found in the auditorium carpet (using ultrasonication, a test performed not by the Board of Education but by an engineer hired by the parents - a test which the EPA is still not employing in its clean up plan for Lower Manhattan) they are balking at testing or abating the auditorium seats. Presumably they believe that the asbestos took a unanimous vote to boycott the seats in favor of the carpet.
In the mean time, 60% of the staff at Stuyvesant reported in a NIOSH study that they had had respiratory and other symptoms they attributed to their exposure to the air at school. No such study has been conducted among students. However parents have reported that their children have been diagnosed with new-onset asthma that may last the rest of their lives; chronic sinusitis entailing heavy doses of steroids and antibiotics and the newly-coined “chemical bronchitis." One girl had her first asthmatic episode in seven years - an attack that landed her in the Emergency Ward - after swimming in the Stuyvesant pool which had not been cleaned.
Klasfeld complained that parents' reports of illnesses were “anecdotal.” This is true. In the absence of a scientific study, all we had to go on was anecdotal reports. He also said, "we believe the events of September 11 and its emotional aftermath have contributed to a number of these incidents." We, who? Mr. Klasfeld and the students' doctors?
After several months of attending hearings and talking to scientists, by February, 2002, I had amassed enough evidence to convince my ex-husband that our son should not be in the Stuyvesant building. I put our son in an alternative high school, the only school that was willing to take a junior mid-year. The school offered no courses except one in Planned Parenthood. Instead, the students did “internships” which involved, in my son's case, stuffing a record number of envelopes.
In the last year, a number of parents have become activists. In my attempts to research issues related to those at Stuyvesant, I went to Google and typed in "elementary schools" and "toxic." Over 23,000 cites came up. It's enough to make you think that the powers that be have other interests at heart than the well-being of children.
When Christy Todd Whitman declared the air in Lower Manhattan to be safe to breathe she set in motion a chain of events that many of us believe will prove the undoing of thousands. Already Ground Zero workers are suing the city for their exposure to toxins during the recovery operation. Many rescue dogs are sick and at least one, “Bear”, has died. The exposure of the students and staff at Stuyvesant was not so different.
In fact, Stuyvesant is a microcosm of everything that can go wrong. The foxes are in charge of the chicken coop. Having made initial mistakes they are in the position of having to defend those mistakes by compounding them. Clearly, there are not enough checks and balances in place. Not enough watchdogs nor enough penalties to make those in charge think twice about lying and compounding the lie. The penalties for compounding lies should increase exponentially over time to prevent the paramount ethic at work from being, "Cover your tracks at all costs."
911 Environmental Action www.911ea.org
Concerned Stuyvesant Community