One BMCC faculty member's health worsened in the years after the 9/11 attacks. In the months after the tragic day, she worked blocks away from the Ground Zero and breathed in the toxic air.
9/11’s Toll on a Member’s Health
For years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Rebecca Weiner, a full-time lecturer at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), experienced a host of mysterious symptoms for which doctors couldn’t pinpoint a single diagnosis. But now, more than 14 years after the World Trade Center attacks, Weiner knows that her dizziness, hacking cough, shortness of breath and bronchospasms are the result of having breathed in the toxic dust that circulated in the Lower Manhattan air in the months following 9/11.
Some BMCC buildings sit just yards from the site where the towers fell following the inferno that claimed thousands of lives when the WTC buildings were struck by commandeered airplanes; others are further away, but near enough to have been compromised by the disaster.
In 2013, after two years of testing, a leading pulmonologist confirmed that Weiner suffers from sarcoidosis, an interstitial lung disease that also attacks the small fiber nerves in her peripheral nervous system. It affects her balance and her ability to feel her feet, among other neuropathic symptoms. Weiner’s also been diagnosed with four other health conditions covered by the World Trade Center Health Program, which assists those suffering from the health effects of having worked or lived near or at the disaster site.
DRAMATIC LIFE CHANGES
“It’s changed my life dramatically,” Weiner told Clarion, speaking of her state of health post-9/11. On days that it’s hard for her to climb subway stairs or walk in crowds, Weiner takes a car service from her Windsor Terrace apartment in Brooklyn to BMCC. She walks near walls, so she can steady herself if she suddenly gets dizzy. When she reads poetry out loud in class, sometimes she has a student take over if she gets short of breath. Recently, she lost her voice on two separate occasions while teaching class.
It’s been a long journey to arrive at her diagnosis. As early as 2003, Weiner began to see a rheumatologist because of widespread joint pain and inflammation.
As her health has gotten progressively worse, it’s affected her life outside of the classroom. A violinist and an Anglo-Catholic deacon, Weiner (who also goes by the name Rebecca Weiner Tompkins) tires easily when performing.
Weiner is among an untold number of people who suffer from 9/11-related health conditions. More than 72,000 people, including first responders as well as people who lived and worked in the affected area, have enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program, according to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the number of people enrolling is still growing. Funding for the program under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010 is set to run out at the end of the year; Mayor Bill de Blasio and US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand are calling for a long-term funding mechanism.
Although certified for the health program, Weiner is awaiting her official examination by program officials, scheduled to take place early next year.
For three weeks following the 9/11 tragedy, BMCC remained closed. The college’s Fiterman Hall was destroyed when a building in the World Trade Center complex fell on the hall’s south wall. But the college’s main building on Chambers Street, where Weiner worked at the time, is about a half-mile north of where the towers fell and a mere few blocks away from where Building 7 in the WTC complex fell. The main campus did not suffer structural damage, so the campus reopened within weeks of the attacks. Yet just across the street sat a waste transfer site where debris from Ground Zero was loaded onto open barges.
“It was weird,” Weiner said, recalling the feeling of working in the area in the months immediately after the attacks. “There was still a smoldering pile at Chambers Street of material from Building 7. The air smelled poisonous…. Every day you could hear and see the cranes [moving the debris].”
When Weiner returned to work in October 2001, after the college reopened, she found the windows of her office open. Her desk, she says, was covered with a quarter-inch of ash. In a 2007 interview with Clarion, David Newman, an industrial hygienist for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, described the waste transfer site directly across from BMCC as “poorly run.”
“As the WTC debris was transferred from trucks to the barges, it was supposed to be wet[ted] down so that dust didn’t become airborne,” Newman told Clarion. “All too frequently, however, that did not happen.”
The PSC pushed for independent testing of the college’s interior and ventilation, and pressed for the barges to be removed. “Any information and support that we got was through the union,” Weiner recalls. The union also urged BMCC members to register for 9/11-related health programs; Weiner registered for one of the programs before its deadline passed because of the union’s advocacy.
The testing that finally took place at the PSC’s insistence revealed the vents to be “heavily contaminated,” according to Newman, though lead levels in classrooms and offices did not exceed EPA residential guidelines. The union pushed for the ventilation ducts to be cleaned, but that work wasn’t completed until 2003.
In the meantime, the union joined with community organizations in calling for greater transparency on the progress on demolition of the old Fiterman Hall and the decontamination of the site, passing a resolution in 2006. A public meeting the union helped organize led CUNY to set up a website detailing the process.
Weiner first spoke to Clarion in September 2011, for a 10th anniversary reflection on 9/11, detailing the health hazards that she and her students encountered. She now describes her own words that close the 2011 Clarion article as “creepy” and “prescient.” “I feel like there are effects that will come up because we were down there every day,” she had said.
For some 30 years, Weiner has taught at BMCC -- a job she says she loves. But now she’s unsure how long she can continue. In the spring of 2014, the state of her lungs led her to take a second leave of absence. (She was also out for a semester in 2008.) She just couldn’t talk for the length of a class -- a problem for a lecturer. She’s almost run out of sick days. Reluctant to ask for any kind of “help,” Weiner is uncomfortable with being labeled a “victim.” (One program through which people like her have sought assistance is called the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.) That’s part of the reason why she initially hesitated to be a part of any federal program. But out of necessity, she’s come around. She’s now hired a lawyer to help her compile the daunting paperwork needed to file a claim. She’s more open, talking to her colleagues about her health and how it’s been affected by 9/11.
“9/11 has had so many repercussions, emotionally and physically, on countless people…. Here I am, so many years later, dealing with these health circumstances that have profoundly altered my body and my life,” Weiner told Clarion. That’s one reason she’s decided to go public: to inform others in the BMCC community who may encounter problems like hers. “I don’t want to be a poster child for 9/11-related health problems, but my story may be useful to those who have or will develop similar issues.”
To inquire about eligibility to take part in the World Trade Center Health Program, contact the Centers for Disease Control at 888-982-4748, or visit www.cdc.gov/wtc.