TESTIMONY FROM GROUND ZERO
Steering Committee, 9/11 Environmental Action
I am the mother of a 17-year-old who was a student at Stuyvesant High School four blocks north of Ground Zero when the World Trade Center was attacked. I took my son out of the school in February because of the alarming degree of environmental contamination there.
Stuyvesant reopened on October 9 with much fanfare and cries of, "Get back to normal!" and, "Show the terrorists!" Unbeknownst to us at the time, that 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 World Trade Center site with its fires and fumes to the south. But also, 60 feet from the north wall of the school was the waste transfer barge that was loaded with toxic debris to be carted away to Staten Island.
Wind off the Hudson River blew fine particles and dust into windows, (yes - some teachers kept windows open) cracks and crevices and into the ventilating system as diesel powered trucks idled and diesel powered cranes operated twenty-four/seven. According to the Sierra Club and the American Lung Association of Pennsylvania diesel, too, contains dozens of toxins and carcinogens.
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 levels in the auditorium which had been used as a triage center.
Despite all these findings, the Board of Education (now 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. These efforts to placate parents were uttered with great conviction by officials who at the same time admitted they had no expertise on the subject.
How was Stuyvesant protected against the onslaught of toxins? Until the end of January the filters in the ventilation system were 10% effective. At that point they were upgraded to 40% effectiveness. And although we had been told before returning to the building that the school had undergone a thorough cleanup including the ventilation system, we later learned that in fact the ventilation system had not been cleaned.
Even after FEMA allocated 20 million dollars to clean the Ground Zero schools, the Board of Education refused to clean Stuyvesant's ventilation system 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 a test performed not by the Board of Education but under the auspices of Howard Bader, an engineer hired by the parents) the Department of Education is balking at appropriately testing or abating the auditorium's plush seats. Presumably they believe that the asbestos fibers took a unanimous vote to boycott the seats in favor of the carpet.
While the Board of Education and other government agencies, taking their cues from the EPA, maintained that the air at the school and in downtown generally was safe, people were getting sick. In a NIOSH study done at Stuyvesant in the spring, 60% of the staff reported that they had had respiratory and other symptoms which they attributed to their exposure to the air at school. No such study has been conducted among students. NIOSH has no authority to study students who outnumber staff by 10 to one and who breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults. There is no system to protect children.
However, parents report that their children have been diagnosed with new-onset asthma which may last the rest of their lives; chronic sinusitis entailing heavy doses of steroids and antibiotics and the newly-coined 'chemical bronchitis." One child had her first asthmatic attack in seven years - an episode that landed her in the Emergency room - after swimming in the pool at Stuyvesant which had not been cleaned.
Already Ground Zero workers are suing the city for their exposure to toxins during the recovery operation. And we have just learned that Bear, a dog who was responsible for a record number of rescues, has died. Autopsy revealed numerous cancers. The majority of the other rescue dogs are also sick. The exposure of the students and staff at Stuyvesant was not so different from that of these rescue workers of various species.
After four months of working to improve conditions at the school and in Lower Manhattan generally, I put my son in an alternative high school, the only school that would take a junior midyear. It had no classes except for one in Planned Parenthood. Instead, it offered internships where my son stuffed a record number of envelopes. This year, more than three weeks into the first semester, I have moved him to yet another school.
Stuyvesant is a microcosm of everything that can go wrong in a disaster. 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. No one but the PA and a few environmental groups were brave enough to stand up for our children, and to help us ask the right questions and get us copies of regulations.
In the last year, a number of parents have become activists, researching beyond the contamination of their own schools and neighborhoods to try to find trends throughout the country. In my attempts to research such environmental issues I went to Google and typed in the phrases "elementary schools" and "toxic." Over 23,000 cites came up. It's enough to make one think that those in charge have interests in mind other than the well-being of children.