The air was thick with fear. Security men and police guarded the entrances to the school while large, smoky trucks carted away debris from ground zero. A sign posted on the second floor entrance required students to wear their ID’s at all times. However, while the security was keeping out unwanted people, something smaller—and much deadlier—was leaking into the school.
On Tuesday, October 9, 2001, just weeks after 9/11, students returned to the Stuyvesant building. Despite reassurances from the Board of Education (BOE) and the Department of Health (DOH) about the safety of the school and the surrounding area, parents and students were not convinced. Within a month of students’ return, many began to complain of respiratory problems. Despite efforts by the Parent Association, the school was not properly ventilated until May 2002, a decision that would have lasting effects on its students.
The Concerned Mother
Marilena Christodoulou, President of the Parent Association (PA) in 2001, became concerned of the school’s air quality. She sent out letters to the parents and the administration to look into the situation. However, both the DOH and BOE assured the parents that the air quality was safe and the building properly ventilated.
On November 26, 2001, Christodoulou testified at a state hearing to address the environmental concerns caused by barges located right outside the building.
“What happened is all of the debris from the World Trade Center is carried by trucks to a barge that was right by the school,” Christodoulou said. “Every time something was dumped, which was several times a day, all the toxins was going back into the ventilation system and back in to the school.”
Christodoulou attended over 20 hearings, including a congressional hearing on February 11, 2002 with Senator Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman of the Committee on Environment and Public Words. It was revealed at this meeting by Bernard Orlan, BOE Supervisor of Buildings, that the air ducts at Stuyvesant were never cleaned.
In May 2002, under pressure from parents, the downtown community, and a lawsuit filed by the PA, the administration finally updated the ventilation system and addressed environmental hazards.
“And none of this happened until they were forced to do it,” Christodoulou said. “And it didn’t happen until, for certain, it was too late.”
The Unsuspecting Victim
It certainly was too late for senior class president Amit Friedlander (’02). Though he wore a dust mask on his first days back in the building, Friedlander was never too concerned about the school environment. Then, in July, 2006, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer commonly seen in 9/11 rescue and recovery workers. He was 23 at the time.
“Pretty much all through college, for a week at a time, I was getting severe flu symptoms, and they just keep coming back,” Friedlander said. “People were telling me that I looked like I was strung out on heroin.”
His chemotherapy treatment, as well as an alternative medicine treatment with plant derived, homeopathic drugs, took about six months. He is now in remission.
Friedlander then began to think about the cause of his cancer. “I talked to my doctor, and the answer was: the exact causes are not fully understood, but one thing that causes it is prolonged exposure to carcinogens (cancer causing chemicals),” he said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, when was the last time I was exposed to carcinogens for an extended period?’”
Unfortunately, Friedlander is not the only one. Students and faculty have had autoimmune diseases, breathing problems, and other unexplained ailments. “I know of one student who had a benign tumor removed and another one who had bizarre ovarian cysts that are very atypical for women below the age of 30,” Friedlander said. “But they didn’t want people to know.”
The Student Advocate
Medical coverage for students was not heavily addressed until Lila Nordstrom (’02) began to advocate for her peers. Nordstrom is a lifelong asthmatic whose condition worsened in the years following 9/11. In 2006, she heard the story of James Zadroga, a New York City police officer and a first responder on 9/11. He died on January 5, 2006 due to a respiratory disease that is attributed to his work on the 9/11 site.
“What burst my college life bubble and got me to focus on [9/11 caused illnesses] was the fact that James Zadroga died,” Nordstrom said in an email interview. “He was the first person to die of 9/11-related causes, and it was all over the news.”
Later that year, she started StuyHealth, a group that advocated for monitoring student symptoms and providing healthcare coverage.
When Friedlander was diagnosed with cancer, Nordstrom became more convinced that something needed to be done to help students who are suffering from their exposure to toxic chemicals during their years at Stuyvesant.
“I used Facebook to contact people (at the time it was only a college network), and the petition said that we deserved medical monitoring and treatment for the rest of our lives,” Nordstrom said.
This petition of over 200 signatures was sent to NY Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Senators Hillary Clinton, Charles Schumer, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. There was no reply.
Weeks later at an anti-war rally, Nordstrom ran into Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and told him about the letter and her concerns. Stringer then set up a meeting and helped her organize a press conference to discuss the issue.
“That was what really got everybody involved,” Nordstrom said. “I met a bunch of members of the community who had been working on this issue and got connected with some Stuy parents who had been trying to advocate for Stuy alums in our absence.”
Through her StuyHealth Facebook page, Twitter account, and website, Nordstrom kept the alumni and public up to date about the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. She sent letters of petition to government officials, talked with New York One and other publications about her organization, and made sure that the bill included coverage for the students and faculty who had to return to school so soon after 9/11.
The bill received congressional approval on December 22, 2010 and was enacted on January 2 of this year.
But the work of StuyHealth is not done.
“We need to continue to do outreach to Stuy alumni who were in school on and after 9/11, so that they know what kind of health conditions are linked to 9/11,” Nordstrom said. “Additionally, this 9/11 health bill only provides 5 years of funding, so we are looking at a fight to renew it in the coming years.”