How much money would we spend to prevent a catastrophe like the one that happened at Virginia Tech last month? Let’s say we knew in advance, for sure and for certain, that something like this was going to happen, let’s say some time in the next 10 years. Then let’s say that with an act of the legislature, or an expenditure by a government agency, we could—for sure—prevent it from manifesting; prevent all that loss of life, all the grief, all the tearing apart of families and communities. How much would it be worth?
And would we do it? It’s a great question for a university ethics class, but it’s also a real question in our world.
The day that Cho Seung-Hui opened fire on his fellow campus community members, killing 32 of them and injuring many more, I was preparing a special edition to be sent out just past the Aries New Moon addressing an environmental massacre that has been developing on the state college campus in New Paltz since 1991. At the time, it seemed little more than an odd synchronicity that a heartbreaking campus story would become the focus of world attention at the same time I was doing what I could, that same day, to call attention back to dioxins and PCBs in four dormitories at SUNY New Paltz.
As the long hours of this week stretched out, however, I began to get the connection.
Let’s look at the two situations individually, so we know what we’re comparing. In Virginia this week, a student lost control of his mind and shot several dozen people. This is shocking because mass death is always shocking; and also because people expect to be safe when they go away to college. My mom, Camille, put it succinctly in an e-mail to me this week: “It’s not just that this happened here at home. It’s the whole issue of where danger lies. That is not to say it’s okay for our kids to die and lose their feet in a ridiculous war, but it’s no surprise either. No one thinks they are going to French class and will get shot. Who is prepared to hit the floor? Or barricade the door? Or jump out of a window?”
Contrast this with SUNY New Paltz. Imagine this scenario: Your kid dreams of being a schoolteacher, and was accepted there, planning an education major. The big day comes, a sunny afternoon in August, the first day of college. You and your family drive from Long Island up to the Hudson Valley turn right off of the Thruway and you’re in another world. The town is utterly charming, and the mountain setting is stunning enough to make Northern California a little envious. You follow the campus map to Bliss Residence Hall, go to the desk, check in. The roommate’s family is there, and they’re of course very nice.
You unload the car, then go out for lunch at the Bistro and basically feel great. This is a major turning point: Your child is now a young adult, taking a tangible step toward independence.
What you don’t know is this: You just moved your son or daughter into a building where an electrical explosion one cold morning in December 1991 sent levels of toxins spiking a million times the “safe limit.” You don’t know that the radiators and air vents in the building were contaminated when thick, greasy PCB- and dioxin-tainted smoke literally soaked the place, rising rapidly because the smoke was so hot and the air was so cold. You don’t know that in just the first three years, more than $36 million was spent, supposedly to clean the campus, and that the cleanup effort was wracked with scandal, controversy and crisis from the first days. All you see is the surface layer: a nice, if somewhat old, dormitory on a fairly typical campus. You never planned for your child to die of leukemia six years later. And you are appalled that a basic Google search of “New Paltz + PCBs” warns of just this potential—but a little too late.
Since the dorms were re-opened in 1992 and 1993, approximately 15,000 students have come through those very buildings, each of them being exposed to toxins that at best add significantly to what they carry in a polluted world (their body burden, or total lifetime exposure), and, at worst, send them over the edge toward a terminal or debilitating illness. The results might be immediate (such as getting mononucleosis) or long-term (such as fertility issues). They may be subtle (a compromised immune system, for no apparent reason) to violent (brain tumors). They may appear in the next generation (childhood vaginal cancer in your granddaughter).
How does this happen? Cleanup levels used to re-open the dorms are outdated. They do something that is now unconscionable in science: They presume a “safe level” of exposure to dioxin and PCBs. Key areas in all four dormitories were never checked for toxins. There is no way to verify the truth of the state’s tests, and it’s nearly impossible for anyone else to get in and take samples. Further, we don’t know what predispositions new students will be coming in with, but we do know that we live in an increasingly toxic world.
There are a few notable differences between New Paltz and Virginia Tech. This week, the deaths were concentrated, and nobody can deny they happened. There was bloodshed and there are obituaries. We also know who the shooter was; he had a face, one we associate with that of a killer, which is in a strange way consoling.
There were witnesses to the crime, and survivors to tell the story. We can explore the psychology of the young man who killed his peers and his teachers. We can trace and debate whether the administration was responsible for not acting to evacuate the campus during the two-hour gap between the shootings. And, most important, when we turn on the TV, we can see the faces of the dead. We see their grieving friends and families. More or less, we know what happened. It is real to us. As such, our moral sensibilities are alerted and we can make decisions about what we want in our lives and in our society.
With students in New Paltz, the effects are scattered in space and time, and many of them will have no apparent connection to having lived in a particular dormitory for two semesters in the distant past. Most people who get sick will not get to tell their story, nor will they appear on the news. They will not have faces we can see. And, should a connection to the New Paltz toxins be made, the killers’ names will not be known. We will not look into the tortured face of a Dr. John Hawley or Dean Palen or Alice Chandler and think, “This person killed my son.” When bureaucrats kill, they usually do so anonymously, and legally, and are protected by the state if they happen to be sued.
And of course, there is the element of plausible deniability. If you ask them, campus administrators and other state officials will hand you reams of documents supposedly proving how safe their buildings are; how clean the last round of tests was; how effective their methods are of assessing the risk. Most students and parents are unprepared to raise issues like endocrine disruption, synergistic effects, and dioxin-like PCBs. Most people will take the word of a smiling administrator in a tie who, after all, would never want to hurt their son or daughter.
But these heartbreaks come home. It seems like yesterday, but it was in the fall of 2000 when I was talking to Jennifer Folster, interviewing her for articles in the Woodstock Times and Chronogram. At that point, Jennifer was desperate to get the word out about New Paltz. She had been exposed to toxins while living in the basement of one of the contaminated dorms, had gotten sick soon after but did not make the connection, and—six years later—was in the late stages of acute myelogenous leukemia. She was told by her doctors that a genetic predisposition, aggravated by an environmental exposure, probably led to her disease, which was of the M2 variety. She had only one known exposure, in Capen Hall. She was suffering greatly and was also told by her doctors that her situation was terminal. Blood transfusions were keeping her alive, but barely, and she couldn’t take it anymore.
She told me that after Thanksgiving with her family, she would stop doing transfusions and probably die within two or three weeks. She did.
We have no way to know how many scenarios like this have played out during the past 15 years, or how many will in the coming decades. But it is long established that SUNY New Paltz has a problem with its dormitories, and that the true extent of the problem remains unknown. Administrators know about these problems, but many forms of denial, both official and personal, keep the problem from being addressed.
Nobody is studying the health of graduates and former students—understandably enough, from a liability perspective. In the event of a future lawsuit, it’s not the kind of thing you want to have in your files. Nobody is warning students at the point when they are moving in; everything is kept as quiet as possible, and even as late as 2004 I was threatened with arrest for even discussing the matter in one of the contaminated dormitories.
Seen in this light, Cho Seung-Hui seems like an honest guy, because at least we know he is a killer; at least he admitted it.
We can solve the New Paltz problem with some money, some community involvement, and some political will. Taking action now will surely prevent additional disaster on the scale of Virginia Tech—though sadly, it will do nothing for the students who have come and gone from New Paltz. But the future is longer than the past.
How to do it is simple. The four dorms, Bliss, Capen, Gage, and Scudder halls, need to be tested for toxins, in the right places—not the clean ones that are routinely checked. The testing must follow strict protocols for independence and community observation, with samples from each location handed over to FedEx with witnesses, and each analyzed by two labs (a procedure called split sampling). And if it turns out the buildings are indeed toxic, they need to be shut down.
Then they need to be either permanently retired, or torn down and replaced. New York State knows that you can’t get PCBs and dioxins out of a structure once it’s contaminated. They know it will be cheaper and much more effective to replace them than trying to renovate them. Many parts of the buildings will need to be put in hazardous waste landfills: all of the air vents, for example, all of the radiators, and all of the electrical conduits. It may turn out that everything needs to be put into a toxic waste landfill, and it would be prudent to cover them in large tents before the work begins so the contamination is not released to the outer environment. State bureaucrats will not be happy about any of this. But they have no right to be serial killers in suits, guarding their precious budgets, while the people who pay their salaries so much as worry about their health and safety for one minute.