The United Federation of Teachers and the Department of Education’s World Trade Center health-awareness program, aimed at reaching nearly 20,000 former public-school students who may have been exposed to potentially deadly toxins, attracted only about 50 people to the inaugural session at the union’s lower Manhattan headquarters Oct. 28.
After months of negotiations, the UFT and DOE have committed to a national outreach campaign to find former city students who attended classes and may be at risk of contracting a World Trade Center-related illness because they attended one of the 29 schools in the WTC contamination zone from Sept. 11, 2001 through the rest of that school year in 2002.
Reached 2,500 Staffers
According to the UFT, it has already contacted the 2,500 active and retired personnel who worked in those schools. Both staff and former students have contracted WTC-related diseases and cancers.
DOE staff and former students who worked in or attended the schools in the zone are eligible to apply for the World Trade Center Health Program and the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, but officials said the perception that these programs were only for first-responders has resulted in a lack of participation in what they call the survivor population: people who lived, worked or attended school in the affected area.
David Hay, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, told the audience that the recent renewal by Congress of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund until 2090 was a recognition of the important role played by the non-first-responder community that brought lower Manhattan back to life after the devastating attack.
“I think oftentimes when we think about Sept. 11 survivors, we think about…the brave men and women who ran into the dust, ran into the cloud and were there at the pile for weeks to come,” Mr. Hay said. “We don’t think of survivors as the everyday people that did just-as-important work going back to their daily routine. So that’s what this is about: the people who decided to go back to school as their act of patriotism.”
‘Catalyzing Tone for Nation’
He continued, “And I think what the nation has said, as they have codified this in Washington, is that what you all did going back to your regular routine here in New York City was the catalyzing tone the rest of the nation needed at the time.”
UFT President Michael Mulgrew pointed to the union’s decision to move its headquarters to 52 Broadway after the 9/11 attacks as a major commitment to the resurgence of lower Manhattan at a pivotal time.
“After 9/11, we love everything the first-responders did, but we also had to make sure all the schools were open and we were told it was safe,” he said. “We had a lot of our staff who are now members of this [9/11] Fund because they were in the buildings making sure the buildings could be opened….and some of them have come down with illnesses because of what they were exposed to.”
As part of the initial effort, the DOE has sent a letter out to the last known address of all 19,000 students. Both the DOE and UFT have committed to using social media to reach the former students as well.
Lila Nordstrom, one of the evening’s speakers, is a WTC survivor who attended Stuyvesant High School, adjacent to the WTC complex. She has started StuyHealth, a non-profit committed to doing outreach to former students like herself who are suffering with, or may yet contract, a WTC related disease.
She said in an interview afterwards that she was not discouraged by the low turnout for the evening program.
“I wasn’t disappointed by the turnout, because a lot of students don’t live in the city anymore and rarely come out in large numbers to events like this,” she said. “For me it was still productive because I ran into a few former students from Murry Bergtraum High School and other area schools I haven’t gotten much traction with. With social media, that can be a jumping-off point to connect with other students from those schools and get the message to them.”
Ms. Nordstrom said one of the hardest things in doing outreach was explaining the different neighborhood boundaries for the WTC Health Program and the 9/11 VCF.
“One of the things that confuses people is that the Victim Compensation Fund is much more frequently advertised, and the boundary for that program is Canal,” Ms. Nordstrom said. “For the WTC Health Program, which is incredibly vital to our community, the eligibility zone actually goes up to Houston and includes parts of western Brooklyn. It’s important to me that people understand that distinction.”
In the years since 9/11, the official death toll due to WTC environmental exposures is approaching the nearly 3,000 who perished on the day of the attack. According to the WTC Health Program, 13,298 people are battling WTC linked cancer and 9,405 of them are first-responders and 3,893 are survivors.
50,000 Have Conditions
Experts estimate that there could be as many as 20,000 additional cancers. There are 50,000 people with at least one WTC health condition, while over 30,000 have two or more to contend with.
While close to 80 percent of the 91,000 9/11 first-responders are signed up for the World Trade Center Health Program and receive free annual screening, just 21,000 survivors are in their version of the program, which requires that participants be symptomatic first.
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