At least 1,000 Teachers and support personnel with the Department of Education and thousands of their former students were exposed to the toxic contamination generated in lower Manhattan by the 9/11 attack and the months of clean-up that followed at the World Trade Center site, according to a top official with the United Federation of Teachers.
During a recent public hearing, union officials asked the City Council for help in contacting the former students, who at the time ranged from kindergartners to seniors in high school attending 29 public schools that were within the contamination zone as defined by the World Trade Center Health Program.
‘Done Nothing So Far’
“The Department of Education and the New York City Department of Health have done nothing, zero, to reach out to those kids and that’s what I ask you to do,” said Ellie Engler, a top aide to UFT President Michael Mulgrew.
Ms. Engler, the union’s top industrial hygienist at the time of the attack, told a joint hearing of the Council’s Committee on Health and the Committee on Civil Service and Labor that the UFT had alerted more than a thousand Teachers, support staff and custodians about their status as “WTC survivors.”
She asked Council Members to use their oversight authority to request that the DOE contact the former students about their potential WTC exposure.
DOE spokesman David Cohen disputed Ms. Engler's assertions, saying Jan. 4, "We conducted a variety of outreach measures to students who may have been affected, including alerting students and families about the health resources available to them through school visits by health officials and letters backpacked home for parents."
Under the James Zadroga Act, both employees and former students are considered “survivors,” as distinguished from WTC “first-responders.” The two classes of victims are treated quite differently, with first-responders automatically entitled to annual health screenings, while “survivors” have to show WTC-related symptoms before they are entitled to the free screening.
‘Must Be Certified to Come’
“We have the capability on the responder side to monitor asymptomatic people. In other words, if you are a responder and you went down there and in Year Four you were feeling great— well, ok, we will just see you next year,” Dr. Michael Crane, the medical director of the WTC Health Program at Mt. Sinai Hospital, said in a phone interview last month. “Unfortunately, that was not written into the survivor side, and they really need to have certified conditions to come in.”
In her testimony, Ms. Engler said that after 9/11, a joint team from the DOE and the UFT inspected several schools that were “most directly in the path of the fallout” from the WTC collapse, and that the city and union closely monitored the status of the clean-up as schools were reopened on a rolling basis.
But, she said, “It took years before any of us made a connection and understood the breadth of the health crisis that would befall many. Only as first-responders started getting sick, with unusual cancers and multiple respiratory problems, did the real impact become public. The message had not hit home.
“We were part of clean-up efforts and, along with thousands of Teachers, city workers, students and residents, walked to and from school breathing air that Federal officials only years later acknowledged was not safe,” she said. “As the years passed, the UFT began hearing from staff who worked in lower Manhattan schools who were now getting sick.”
She continued, “Critically, and unexpectedly, students—young men and women in their early 20s—began receiving cancer diagnoses typically affecting people twice their age.”
Ms. Engler disclosed at the hearing that among the three employees of the UFT’s Health and Safety Department, two, including herself, subsequently were diagnosed with WTC-linked cancers.
“This is not easy work,” she said. “These are people who didn’t necessarily see themselves as sick from 9/11. These are not people that worked 'on the pile.' Some of these members have difficulty facing these tough issues about their health. Often they’re already sick.”
Ms. Engler shared with the Council the story of Maria Sanabria, a paraprofessional at the Leadership and Public Service High School on Trinity Place. Ms. Sanabria helped guide her school’s students to safety “through the smoke, ash and debris” after the Sept. 11 attack.
A Late Diagnosis
Two of her former colleagues died from cancer, and in 2017, after years of respiratory issues, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
“Shoshana Dornhelm was a student at Stuyvesant High School on Sept. 11, 2001, and for the months and three years that followed,” testified Ms. Engler. “In 2016, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and had to undergo six rounds of chemotherapy. She is healthy and surviving now.”
In an interview after her testimony, Ms. Engler took issue with the WTC Health Program’s requirement that “survivors” be symptomatic before they can get the free health screening to which first-responders are already entitled.
“It doesn’t make sense that someone who was in Stuyvesant working as a Teacher needs to wait until they are sick to get that service,” she said. Ms. Engler added that in addition to getting parity for pro-active health screening with first-responders, UFT members still on the job who are battling a WTC disease should be granted the unlimited-sick-time benefit being set up for civilian-employee 9/11 first-responders.
‘Shouldn’t Have to Wait’
For Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the Health Committee, the two-tier WTC Health Program screening protocol was problematic. “Whether they were working for the City Council or the Department of Education, you should not have to wait until you are symptomatic” to get free health screening, he said in a City Hall interview. “We hope we have shone a light on that here. We hope the city will immediately rectify the imbalance.”
According to the UFT, staff and former students from the schools listed below may have been exposed to WTC-related contamination if they were present during the 9/11 attack and the several months of clean-up that followed:
South of Canal St.
PS 234, 292 Greenwich St., 10007, D2
PS 150, 334 Greenwich St., 10013, D2
PS 1 Alfred Smith, 8 Henry St., 10038, D2
PS 2 Meyer London, 122 Henry St, 10002, D2
PS 124 Yung Wing School, 40 Division St., 10002, D2
PS 89, 201 Warren St., 10282, D2
John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy Charter School, 17 Battery Place, 10004, D2
Leadership & Public Service High School, 90 Trinity Place, 10006, D2
Stuyvesant High School, 345 Chamber St., 10282, D2
Murry Bergtraum High School, 411 Pearl St., 10038, D2
High School of Economics and Finance, 100 Trinity Pl, New York, NY 10006, D2
South of Houston St.
PS 184 Shuang Wen School, 327 Cherry Street, 10002, D1
PS 134 Henrietta Szold School, 293 East Broadway, 10002, D1
PS 137 John Bernstein, 293 East Broadway, 10002, D1, CONSOLIDATED WITH PS 134
PS 110 Florence Nightingale, 285 Delancey St., 10002, D1
PS 42 Benjamin Altman, 71 Hester St, 10002, D2
PS 130 Hernando Desoto School, 143 Baxter St., 10013, D2
PS 142 Amalia Castro School, 100 Attorney St., 10002, D2
PS 140 Nathan Straus, 123 Ridge St., 10002, D1
PS 188 Island School, 442 E. Houston St., 10002, D1
PS 126 Jacob Riis, 80 Catherine St., 10038, D2
Marta Valle High School, 145 Stanton St., 10002, D2
Bard High School, 525 E. Houston St., 10002, D1
City as School High School, 16 Clarkson St., 10014, D2
MS 131 Sun Yat Sen School, 100 Hester St, New York, NY 10002, D2
NEST, 111 Columbia St., 10002, D1
University Neighborhood High School, 200 Monroe St., 10002, D1
Chelsea Career and Technical High School, 200 Monroe St., 10002, D1
PS/MS 8 Robert Fulton, 8 Hicks St., Brooklyn, 11201, D13
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