It’s been nearly 22 years since the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. Still many New Yorkers are not only scarred by it, but are still dying because of the air they breathed.
Hundreds of thousands of people spent time in Lower Manhattan in the months after, unaware they were putting themselves in danger due to the debris.
Dana Nelson went to Stuyvesant High School. Kenneth Muller worked at Goldman Sachs. Both were just blocks from the World Trade Center. Doctors diagnosed both with cancers that were caused by the toxic air. Nelson had breast cancer. Muller had kidney cancer. But only one would be potentially helped by a new bill passed by the New York State Assembly and State Senate.
It’s called the 9/11 Notice Act, and it calls for state agencies to develop rules for businesses to inform their employees — or former workers — about two federal programs, the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and the World Trade Center Health Program, if they get sick from their exposure being in Lower Manhattan in the months following the attacks.
However, the group that is not included: students.
“I just want everyone who spent any time down here at that time to be aware of the real possibility of illness and make sure they are getting the care that they’re entitled to,” Nelson said.
She said she knew about the two programs, because her dad — who worked in Lower Manhattan — also got sick and utilized the two federal programs, which cover medical costs associated with illnesses related to breathing the air in Lower Manhattan.
However, federal data shows most of the people signed up for these programs are first responders, not survivors — who are people who worked, lived or went to school downtown.
For example, 85,954 first responders out of an estimated 90,000 are enrolled in the World Trade Center health program. On the other hand, 39,540 survivors are signed up out of an estimated 310,000.
“I don’t think this is top of mind for everyone,” Nelson said. “Or even something they’re aware of at all.”
That’s why Nelson and other advocates don’t understand why the bill didn’t include students.
“There are thousands of students out there — former students, who don’t know they are entitled and yet they are getting sick,” said Michael Barasch, a managing partner at the firm Barasch & McGarry, which represents tens of thousands of people battling 9/11-related illnesses.
One of the bill’s sponsors told NY1 in an email that students were not included to avoid confusion with a 2019 initiative by city’s Department of Education, which did not respond to NY1 questions, to inform all of them about the programs.
But there have been questions about how effective it has been.
“I personally have gotten no notice,” Nelson said, who is now a public school teacher in New York City.
She said even without getting notice from the city, thanks to enrolling in the two federal programs, she saved tens of thousands of dollars.
“We would have financially been completely destroyed if we hadn’t had that,” she said.
That’s why she said she shares her story with former classmates, helping get several signed up.
Kenneth Muller said he believes the 9/11 Notice Act should be amended to include students.
He spends time doing outreach online and participating in television ads. He said by his count; he has helped get more than 70 people signed up across the country.
“It’s my way of paying it forward by telling people I know,” he said.
Barasch pointed out the DOE initiative wouldn’t apply to the private schools, daycares, universities, and law schools that are in Lower Manhattan.
Barasch, Muller and Nelson all believe businesses should be mandated to tell their employees eligible about the federal programs — and schools should be required to tell their former students.