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BY ALINE REYNOLDS | Why are there two different geographical parameters within the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act? And, if post-traumatic stress disorder is recognized by the U.S. Army, then why doesn’t the U.S. Department of Justice consider it to be a compensatory illness for 9/11 victims?
These were two of the most common questions brought up by 9/11 survivors and advocacy groups in their responses to the draft regulations for the law’s $2.75 billion Victim Compensation Fund. Dozens of groups and individuals from the 9/11 community raced against the Friday, Aug. 5 deadline to submit their comments, only weeks before Special Master Sheila Birnbaum finalizes the regulations in September. The fund promises to be up and running by Oct. 1.
The prevailing request among Lower Manhattan residents, students and workers was that Birnbaum extend the geographical boundaries for V.C.F. eligibility so they are congruent with the Houston Street boundary outlined in the health portion of the bill. Currently, the V.C.F. catchment area is bordered by Reade Street and the Brooklyn Bridge to the north, and the eastern, southern and western edges of Lower Manhattan. The program is designed to compensate those who were injured “from the impact of the aircraft or any subsequent fire, explosions, or building collapses.”
During a July Community Board 1 meeting, Birnbaum said she was committed to getting the V.C.F. rules “right,” particularly in setting the geographic range for eligibility. Though Birnbaum is on the record saying she would consider applications of victims outside of the boundary lines, stakeholders worry she would prioritize the applicants in the boundaries defined by the current guidelines.
Making Reade Street the northernmost border has no scientific or medical basis, according to the World Trade Center Health Program Survivor Steering Committee, an advisory group established by the Zadroga Act to monitor its implementation for Downtown residents, workers and students.
Birnbaum, who represents the U.S. Department of Justice, determined the current parameters in part by examining the proliferation of debris from the initial dust cloud as shown by aerial and satellite images. This approach is flawed, according to the steering committee, because it “fails to address the fact that people were exposed to smaller, highly respirable particles, which travel much farther than coarse particles, are often invisible to the unaided eye, and are inhaled much deeper into the lung.”
Victims north of Reade Street, the committee alleges, were exposed to a steady stream of toxic dust and fumes during the cleanup effort.
Many Downtown residents and students, some of whom submitted comments, shared first-hand accounts of their dust exposure north of Reade Street.
For three-and-a-half months after the attacks, Sullivan Street resident Ann Arlen awoke to an apartment filled with smoke. She began suffering from chronic bronchitis, and in late 2003, she was diagnosed with obstructive lung disease.
Limiting the boundaries for eligible patients is a continuation of the same dismissive behavior the federal government exhibited in the early years, Arlen said, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed Lower Manhattan’s air safe to breathe just one week after Sept. 11, 2001.
“I just think it’s terrible. They really didn’t capture the experience down on the ground,” said Arlen.
Diane Lapson, president of the Tenant Association at Independence Plaza North, a Tribeca apartment complex between West and Greenwich Streets and north of Reade Street, claims that residents developed health problems such as reflux disease, nose bleeds, asthma and sinus infections in the weeks and months following 9/11. In some cases, Lapson said, symptoms have led to residents’ premature deaths—as in the case of Diana Garcia, a middle-aged woman, whose severe asthma caused her to have a fatal heart attack.
Shortly after the attacks, Lapson elaborated, government officials advised residents to keep their windows shut and rid of all soft furnishings and air conditioning units, which serves as proof of potential risk of exposure to the toxins. Hudson River winds had dispersed dust particles throughout I.P.N. territory. The barge operations set up on West Street, steps away from I.P.N., were also subjecting residents to toxins from the transported debris, according to Lapson. “Those winds carried dust and particles into air conditioning sleeves which were not sealed, as well as windows that were open,” she said. “Everyone smelled like acrid smoke for days.”
One of the barges, at Pier 25, was located directly north of Stuyvesant High School, which straddles the Reade St. border. According to Stuyvesant graduate Lila Nordstrom, students there were forced to use a new emergency route to enter the school, bringing them closer to the burning debris. The school’s ventilation system, furniture and carpeting was not properly cleaned until summer 2002—nearly a year after the students relocated to the school, even though the Board of Education discovered traces of respirable particulate matter in fall of 2001 and the E.P.A. detected unusually high amounts of particulate matter in the school shortly thereafter.
In the meantime, students were developing heath problems. A survey conducted by the Parent-Teacher Association in late 2001 revealed that two-thirds of respondents reported a slew of symptoms, such as nosebleeds, headaches and difficulty breathing. According to Lori Pandolfo, former co-president of the Stuyvesant High School Parent-Teacher Association, an entire girls’ soccer team was diagnosed with asthma after having trained inside the building.
Ten years later, Nordstrom and many of her fellow graduates grapple with severe cases of acid reflux and heartburn. Some of them can’t afford the appropriate medication for their symptoms, since it is costly.
“It’s a bad sign considering that we have another 60 years to live with these symptoms and see them get more serious,” said Nordstrom.
Other nearby residential buildings also reported evidence of contamination. Jo Polett,who lives at 105 Duane St., a 52-story residence seven blocks north of the World Trade Center and one block north of Reade St., vividly recalls the towering dust plume that enshrouded his building and obstructed the view from his apartment window on Sept. 11, 2001.
According to Polett, “the present geographic boundaries for applicants to the V.C.F. are incompatible with provable fact.” In December of that year, an industrial hygienist hired by fellow residents scientifically confirmed that the building’s ventilation system contained asbestos from the dust cloud. E.P.A. tests also revealed alarmingly high levels of lead and other heavy metals on Polett’s and other residents’ apartment floors.
Chinatown and Lower East Side residents could also be denied compensation under the current V.C.F. guidelines, the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund pointed out in its comments. Approximately 600 patients in zip code 10002 have been treated for 9/11-related illnesses, according to the organization.
One Civic Center resident, who requested anonymity, said she developed a chronic cough in the months after the attacks. In 2007, her private doctor medicated her after detecting high levels of metal in her blood stream. “After 9/11, there was no Great Wall at Chinatown preventing the thick fog we were all living under from penetrating our homes and lives,” said the resident. “There was no concern then and there is no concern now for the lives of people who were affected.”
Other commenters urged Birnbaum P.T.S.D. as a physical injury, since the law currently precludes compensation for “mental and emotional” problems.
New York Police Department officer Robert Brady, who was buried in debris moments after the towers fell, said the panic attacks, depression and P.T.S.D. he has experienced have been ten times as bad as all his physical ailments combined.
Kim Lam, who was on the 84th floor of Tower One when the first plane hit, was severely traumatized from the hour-long journey down three different sets of stairs. “The event of 9/11 has damaged my brain. I believed that is physical,” she said. “I hope that your organization should reconsider this harm and be sympathetic and generous to those afflicted with P.T.S.D.”
The mental disorder should be a compensatory health condition, the survivor’s steering committee echoed, since it is recognized by the U.S. Army, the Veterans Benefits Administration and several federal commissions as a potentially disabling condition that can impede one’s ability to earn a living.
Indeed, 70 firefighters of the have retired as a result of 9/11-related P.T.S.D., according to Thomas O’Brien, Captain of the Fire Department of New York’s Special Operations Command, who acquired P.T.S.D. after spending spent eight months at Ground Zero following the attacks.
Not being compensated for P.T.S.D., O’Brien said, is “a severe blow to those who left their families to rescue and recover and, like those who were lost, never returned home the person they were.”
While Ground Zero recovery workers like himself wore protective gear, O’Brien said, “nothing was provided to protect from the physical harm to my brain.”