Eighteen Years Later, What about the Children?
Schools Agency Begins Belated Outreach Effort to Former Lower Manhattan Students at Risk of 9/11 Illness
The City’s Department of Education (DOE) is partnering with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) union for an unusual mission: tracking down former New York City public school students who were pupils at Lower Manhattan schools on September 11, 2001 (or in the months that followed) and informing them that their health may be at risk. The project will also seek to put these students in touch with the World Trade Center Health Program and the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund.
Outreach to other communities of those affected by exposure to environmental toxins as a result of the terrorist attacks of September, 2001 — such as first responders and residents — has for years been proactive and aggressive. But there has been very little organized effort thus far to reach the population of onetime students, now grown into adults ranging from as young as 23 to as old as 36, who also might be facing life-threatening illness. In some cases, the long latency periods of diseases associated with World Trade Center contamination can mean that such sickness may only now be showing symptoms, or may not for years to come.
In September, the DOE began mailing out the first of more than 19,000 letters to the last known addresses of students who attended schools such as P.S. 89, I.S. 289, P.S. 234, P.S. 150, and Stuyvesant High School, along with dozens of other elementary, middle, and high schools below Houston Street. (A total of 29 schools are believed to have been exposed to dangerous levels of toxins.) The logistical challenges are considerable: Most children who were in kindergarten in September, 2001 likely graduated college several years ago.
Adding to the difficulty is the super-heated Lower Manhattan real estate market in the years since 2001, one knock-on effect of which has been that relatively few young people who grew up in the community can afford to rent or buy homes here as adults. But for all the obstacles, the urgency is the campaign is underscored by the fact that young, growing metabolisms are even more vulnerable to some kinds of toxins than adults are.
The UFT has also begun identifying and conducting outreach to more than 3,000 current and former teachers who taught at these schools. UFT president Michael Mulgrew said, “students, teachers, community members need to know their rights. If they are sick or become sick, they are entitled to health support and possible compensation. Those benefits are not just for first responders.”
In a separate, but related development, the Borough of Manhattan Community College (located just blocks from the World Trade Center) has also begun an effort to identify and contact some 20,000 former students and staff who were also possibly exposed to harmful pollutants.
This push comes in reaction to a year-long lobbying effort by the UFT, which sought to persuade the City Council to enact legislation requiring the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to conduct such outreach. To avert begin legally compelled to identify and contact former students and teachers nearly two decades after the fact, City Hall agreed to implement the program voluntarily.
While participation by first responders in the World Trade Center Health Program exceeds 80 percent of their overall population, the much-larger cohort known as survivors (meaning residents, workers, and students who were exposed to dangerous substances) have signed up at rates below five percent of this group’s estimated size of more than 400,000 people.
Former public school students comprise a subset of this second tranche. Little is known thus far about how many of them have registered for the World Trade Center Health Program, although it seems reasonable to infer that their participation rate is lower even than that of the survivor group as a whole.
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