It has been almost 22 years since the devastating terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, which remains the worst in U.S. history. The effects of this tragic event continue to impact many New Yorkers who not only carry emotional scars but also suffer from illnesses caused by the toxic air they breathed in the aftermath.
During the months following the attack, hundreds of thousands of people spent time in Lower Manhattan, unaware that they were putting themselves in danger due to the presence of hazardous debris. Dana Nelson, a former student at Stuyvesant High School, and Kenneth Muller, who worked at Goldman Sachs, were both located near the World Trade Center at the time. They were later diagnosed with cancers that were directly caused by exposure to the toxic air. Nelson developed breast cancer, while Muller had kidney cancer. However, only one of them could potentially benefit from a new bill recently passed by the New York State Assembly and State Senate.
This bill, known as the 9/11 Notice Act, requires state agencies to establish guidelines for businesses to notify their eligible employees or former workers about two federal programs: the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and the World Trade Center Health Program. These programs provide medical coverage for individuals who become sick as a result of their exposure to the air in Lower Manhattan during the months after the terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, the bill does not encompass students, leaving them without the potential benefits of these programs.
Dana Nelson, who was aware of the federal programs due to her father’s experience as an ill worker in Lower Manhattan, believes it is important for everyone who spent time in the area during that period to be aware of the possibility of illness and to access the care they are entitled to receive. However, federal data reveals that the majority of those registered for these programs are first responders rather than survivors, such as individuals who worked, lived, or went to school in downtown Manhattan. This indicates that awareness about these programs may be lacking among survivors.
Advocates like Nelson and Michael Barasch, a managing partner at the firm Barasch & McGarry representing thousands of 9/11-related illness patients, question why the bill excludes students from its requirements. They argue that thousands of current and former students may be unaware of their entitlements and are suffering from preventable illnesses. The bill’s sponsor explained that students were excluded to avoid confusion with a 2019 city initiative by the Department of Education to inform students about these programs, but there have been doubts about its effectiveness.
Nelson, now a public school teacher in New York City, personally never received any notice from the city about the federal programs. However, she managed to enroll and save tens of thousands of dollars in medical expenses. Determined to help others, she shares her experience and encourages her former classmates to sign up for the programs. Kenneth Muller, similarly affected by 9/11-related illness, actively engages in outreach efforts online and through television ads, having successfully assisted over 70 people in registering for the programs.
Barasch highlights that the Department of Education initiative does not cover private schools, daycares, universities, and law schools in Lower Manhattan, leaving former students from these establishments unaware of their eligibility. Barasch, Muller, and Nelson all argue that businesses should be obliged to inform their eligible employees about the federal programs, and schools should be required to notify their former students. By expanding the scope of the 9/11 Notice Act, they believe more individuals can receive the care and support they desperately need.