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Big Hits, Broken Dreams; Republicans and Your Health Care; Kids in Toxic School Buildings

Aired January 21, 2012 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Good morning, everybody. Thanks for joining us. I'm on assignment in Los Angeles.

We've got a lot of ground to cover this morning, on what the presidential candidates are promising for your health care. We'll talk about that.

Also, my investigation on toxic schools. Could they be making your students sick?

But, first, a story that I've been looking at for more than a year now. There's growing evidence repeated blows to the head, the kind you get on the football field, can have lasting repercussions for young people. Some states are writing laws.

In fact, one just took effect this month here in California. Any player on a high school or middle school who gets a concussion must be cleared by a trainer or doctor before going back on the field.

Even then, though, the risk is hard to gauge. You can't really see damage to the brain unless you actually look inside. Of course by then, it's too late.


GUPTA (voice-over): Football is a violent game, full of big hits. What are all those collisions doing to the brain inside those helmets?

I met with Kevin Guskiewicz. He's a researcher from the University of North Carolina. He can actually measure the intensity of the hits.

(on camera): So, I'm going to give it sort of a moderate hit and see what happens.

KEVIN GUSKIEWICZ, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA: It's recorded up here at 23.6 Gs of acceleration.

GUPTA (voice-over): Guskiewicz recently won a MacArthur Genius Grant for his work on concussions in football.

GUSKIEWICZ: He's going to with stand an impact 157 Gs.

GUPTA (on camera): Wow. That's similar to a car accident.


The question becomes how many of those big impacts? And (INAUDIBLE) can a player withstand over the course of a season or a career, there's some cumulative damage?

GUPTA (voice-over): On average, high school players sustain more than 650 blows to the head every season. That worries Guskiewicz because their brains aren't as developed as adults. The tissue of that brain is still very elastic. In fact, you can think of a brain like an egg yolk, and the fluids around it being the whites.

(on camera): It's about that joke moving within the shell or the skull in this case.

GUSKIEWICZ: A helmet really is not designed to do that to the level that will prevent concussion.

GUPTA (voice-over): Guskiewicz also sits on the NFL health and safety committee.

And today, he's showing me around the Matthew Gfeller Sports Spectacular. It's a hands-on clinic devoted to teaching players, parents and coaches in how to prevent head injuries.

The event is named after this 15-year-old Winston Salem High School sophomore.

BOB GFELLER, MATTHEW'S FATHER: He was an Eagle Scout. He was an actor.

GUPTA: His biggest passion was football.

B. GFELLER: We go to see Notre Dame play army, I think it was. We are right at the tunnel. He looks to me and he says, "Dad, are you going to see me run out of the tunnel?"

GUPTA: Friday night, August 22nd, 2008. It was Matthew's first varsity game for the R.J. Reynolds Demons. With just minutes left in the fourth quarter, Matthew was hit. And he doesn't get up.

B. GFELLER: He couldn't breathe. He was struggling to breathe. Pupils were totally dilated. No reaction. No movement.

LISA GFELLER, MATTHEW'S MOTHER: He died early Sunday morning. You have to come back home to your house without your child. I mean, it's just --

B. GFELLER: Just unbelievable.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm going to ask when you leave this field today you never again use the word ding or bell ringer. You mean a brain injury.

GUPTA: But the Gfellers have since found meaning in their son's death by partnering with Kevin Guskiewicz. Their message: you can make football safer. GUSKIEWICZ: So, what we are trying to show is if you are watching the defensive player, he's keeping the head up. Leading with that initial movement. These arms forward.

GUPTA: The arms are forward.

GUSSKIEWICZ: Arms forward.

GUPTA: And for the Gfellers, it's so much more than just football.

GUPTA: You speak of legacies. I mean, this is an important thing.

B. GFELLER: Absolutely.

L. GFELLER: For me, when I see all these boys learning, and all the coaches learning, I think people are going to be safer this season. There are going to be children not at the hospital because of this event. That gives us a lot of satisfaction.


GUPTA: And you can see much more about this in my documentary next weekend. It's about a teen that we followed in North Carolina, looking to turn tragedy into triumph.

Can you play a safer game and still win? "Big Hits, Broken Dreams," Sunday, January 29th, right here on CNN.

You know, in the presidential race, all the attention is on South Carolina and the Republicans. Last week, I looked at Mitt Romney's handling of health care as Massachusetts governor. Well, today, two rivals.

Newt Gingrich is blasting so-called Romneycare. He calls it big government, high cost, bureaucratic.

But he hasn't always felt that way. Back in 2006, Gingrich called it exciting and said, quote, "The health bill that Governor Romney signed into law this month has tremendous potential to affect major change in the American health system.

On the controversial question, should everyone be required to have insurance, Gingrich changed his mind. In fact, listen to what Gingrich had to say about mandates specifically on NBC's "Meet the Press."


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I said consistently, we ought to have some requirements -- you either health insurance or you post a bond, or in some way you indicate you are going to be held responsible.

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS: But that is the individual mandate, is it not?

GINGRICH: It's a variation on it.


GUPTA: The one thing Gingrich and Romney have in common is they both want to repeal Obamacare and start over.

This week, Gingrich posted details of his plan on his Web site. Some highlights of it: more high risk pools to cover for people who are too sick to buy insurance. Also, change Medicaid into a grant program, mostly run by state, and give Americans generous tax credits to purchase their health coverage.

Now, on to, Congressman Ron Paul of Texas. As you may know, he's actually a physician. He practices in OB/GYN. He says the government should out of the health care business really all together. He says Medicare and Medicaid are, quote, "unconstitutional."

And that led to a controversial moment at a CNN debate where Paul was asked a hypothetical question, a 30-year-old man who doesn't buy insurance and gets into a terrible accident. Paul says the 30-year- old should assume responsibility. Take a listen.


REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That's what freedom is about, taking your own risk. This whole idea that you have to take care of everybody --

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Congressman, are you saying the society should let him die?




PAUL: I practice medicine before we had Medicaid in the early 1960s when I got out of medical school. I practiced in Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio. The churches took care of them. We never turned anybody away from the hospital.


GUPTA: You know, under Paul's plan, a person could buy insurance or choose to pay their doctors cash. In both cases they get 100 percent tax credit for every dollar spent.

Like the other Republican candidates, Paul says we can make health insurance more affordable by letting people shop across state lines, forcing companies to lower prices to become more competitive.

Now, in other news his week, Paula Deen announced she has diabetes. That's right, Paula Deen. She's, of course, known for cooking up rich, delicious Southern food. More good than good for you. Now, she's promising some healthier versions. It got us thinking. Meals you thought never could be healthy. Think things like mac and cheese.

Could there be a healthier way? Well, it turns out there is and we'll show you. That's next.



GUPTA (voice-over): As we hunker down for winter, a lot of us reach for comfort food -- old favorites like chili, spaghetti and meat balls, mac and cheese.

(on camera): I got to say as a doctor, there was a reason that some of grandma's food tasted as good as they did, right?

KAT KINSMAN, MANAGING EDITOR, CNN EATOCRACY: Oh, that would be butter and lard, and all that stuff we are afraid of now.

GUPTA (voice-over): But it doesn't have to be so bad.

JIM GALLIVAN: The idea also is to make sure that it has a good nutritional profile so that it feeds all of the senses, as well as the body.

GUPTA: For mac and cheese --

MARISA MOORE, REGISTERED DIETITIAN: Start with the lower fat milk, that will help to cut back on the calories, or even add vegetables to it.

GUPTA: For spaghetti and meat balls.

MOORE: Instead of using beef, you might use a lean, ground turkey. In addition to that, you might switch up your pasta option and use a spaghetti squash.

GUPTA: Lower carbs and fewer calories.

As for chili?

MOORE: You can add beans. You can add mushrooms and carrots. Those are great ways to increase the fiber.

GUPTA: Looks good. That's food for life.


GUPTA: You know, in September, the Fit Nation crew and I are going to be running, biking, swimming in the Nautical Malibu triathlon, not too far from here. The training can be tough. When I need inspiration, I think of scout basset what does it all with just one leg.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) GUPTA (voice-over): On a hot Los Angeles day you'll find Scout Bassett outside on the roof of her apartment building logging miles on her bike. She's a dedicated multisport athlete, but take a closer look -- Scout has run marathons and raced triathlons all with one leg.

SCOUT BASSETT, PARA-ATHLETE: This has been very good to me and done a lot of long miles.

GUPTA: Scout lost her leg when she was just a baby. It was the beginning of a difficult childhood.

BASSETT: I was burned in a fire in China and when I turned one- year- old, I was placed on the streets in front of the government orphanage. When I came here to the U.S., I was 7 years old and weighed 22 pounds.

GUPTA: Scout had never left her orphanage before being adopted. Overnight, she found herself with a new family in a new country surrounded by strangers and unable to speak any English.

BASSETT: Everybody is just looking at you, wanting to know what is going on, who you are, where you come from. And I mean -- and it's like I'm not even sure what's happening to me. How am I supposed to explain that to you?

GUPTA: Exercise became a refuge. She saw other para-athletes race a triathlon with the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

BASSETT: Being able to see that was something that changed my life forever, seeing what was possible out there.

GUPTA: She started to race triathlons herself -- swimming without any artificial leg because it would weigh her down. Switching into a leg with a foot made into a bike cleat and then switching again to an artificial running leg for the end of the race.

BASSETT: Race-by-race, training day by training day, I started to gain this confidence that I really had lacked for much of my life. And became just this person who really believed in myself for the first time.

GUPTA: And she has no plans of slowing down.


GUPTA: You know, she now trains with the U.S. national para-Olympic team. And I'm hoping Scott can meet the Fit Nation lucky seven, seven views and I are just two weeks from the launch, training for this year's triathlon.

I want you to follow along and be our partner in this. You can some tips for yourself, on fitness and health, right here on SGMD.

But coming up, I'm going to show you what I found on my latest investigation. Imagination this -- learning your kids have been going to school every day in a building that's contaminated by toxic waste and no one told you. I can tell you this: it's not just one school. That's next.


GUPTA: Welcome back to SGMD.

I'm in Los Angeles this morning.

And since the 1990s, the L.A. school district has paid a fortune to decontaminate late that it uses for public schools, including $33 million in just one sight. They also had $3 million clean up at a school named for Rachel Carson and Al Gore.

The ironically enough, doing environment studies.

The thing is this, toxic schools aren't just a problem here in Los Angeles. Just look what we found in the Bronx of New York. It's a charter school called P.S.51.


MARISOL CARRERO, MOTHER: Yes, I need your lunch bag.


GUPTA (voice-over): Marisol Carrero is helping her son Brandon get ready for the first day of school.

Brandon seems excited. But Marisol -- well, she seems nervous.

CARRERO: Am I always ready myself with this?

GUPTA: This is more than just a case of first day jitters.

BRANDON: I cannot wait to get to school.

GUPTA: In August, just weeks before school started, Marisol saw this emergency meeting notice taped to Brandon's school P.S. 51 in the Bronx. That night, Marisol joined an auditorium packed with worried parents.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott opened the meeting with a dramatic statement.

CHANCELLOR DENNIS WALCOTT, NEW YORK DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION: First, I want to start out by apologizing to all of you.

GUPTA: And he followed the apology with disturbing news.

WALCOTT: We decided to do environmental reviews. Your school came with a result that we were not satisfied with, with an elevated level of TCE.

GUPTA: TCE or trichloroethylene is a carcinogen. Prolonged exposure can cause Parkinson's, cancer, even death. Tests at P.S.-51 showed TCE levels at a hundred times worse than what's considered safe.

WALCOTT: Based on the final confirmation, we thought we needed to shut the building down.

GUPTA: Parents are upset.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You are using euphemisms. You're trying to be nice. That was a building that was scoring chemicals that were cancer-causing agents and because of the vicinity and the children that are involved, you didn't care.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And you guys, Board of Ed, first allowed it to be used as a school for our children. I think it's so inappropriate.

GUPTA: But the parents were even more upset by the fact that the Department of Education discovered the contamination in January, yet parents weren't told and their children were kept in class through the end of the year.

WALCOTT: I voiced my displeasure with our folks any myself as far as the timeliness of the notification. And from this point on, whenever we get a positive notification around some type of environmental issue, the parent community, the staff and the school community will be notified immediately.

GUPTA: I met Marisol outside that contaminated school.

(on camera): So the staff, the kids, all the people who are essentially in this building a good chunk of their days knew nothing about this?

CARRERO: No. The chancellor said he was sorry.

GUPTA: How worried are you?

CARRERO: Very worried.

This is the school right here.

GUPTA (voice-over): Marisol says even Brandon, who's normally upbeat, is worried.

(on camera): You like this new building?


GUPTA: You know why you're in the new building?



BRANDON: Because it closed down because of TCE, a chemical.

GUPTA: You knew all of that. What do you know about TCE?

BRANDON: Well, it's a cancer-causing chemical.

GUPTA (voice-over): We wanted to ask Chancellor Walcott why they didn't tell parents about the toxic chemical in the school until months after they knew about it. But after repeated requests for an interview, his office declined to speak with CNN.

SHAWN COLLINS, ATTORNEY: For the sheer callousness and recklessness of the behavior toward kids, this is as bad as I've ever seen.

GUPTA: Lawyer Shawn Collins has won a number of TCE contamination suits for communities around the country.

COLLINS: The people who ran this school and their environmental consultants knew for at least six months that there were dangerous levels, in some cases off-the-charts levels of chemicals in the air that these kids were breathing and yet they let those kids go there day in and day out every day for the rest of a semester. Unconscionable.

GUPTA: Collins said the building should never have been a school.

COLLINS: It's an old industrial site, not a place to have kids going to school.

GUPTA: New York City records show P.S.-51 did house a car garage and a lamp factory. TCE, once used to degrease metal, could have been leftover waste.

Many schools around the country are built on old industrial sites according to Lenny Siegel, who digs up the past of toxic schools.

LENNY SIEGEL, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR PUBLIC ENVIRONMENTAL OVERSIGHT: We don't consider contamination before we decide where to put the school, and particularly in New York City where they have so many leased schools on leased properties, most of which are former industrial sites or at least many of which -- I don't know the exact number -- they had a policy of not looking for problems.

GUPTA: Siegel believes that ground and water testing should be mandatory. He also says P.S.-51 was probably always problematic.

Just weeks before Brandon and the other P.S.-51 kids started at their new school, parents were hit with more unsettling news. Tests revealed slightly elevated levels of a common but toxic dry cleaning chemical, PCE.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And what's going to happen to our children?

GUPTA: Parents showed up at another meeting in October to confront the chancellor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I first have to say Dennis Walcott, how dare you?

CROWD: How dare you?

GUPTA: The chancellor dismissed the results at the new school as insignificant.

WALCOTT: There was an open container and so once that was corrected, the levels came back down. It was fine.

GUPTA: But parents like Marisol no longer trust the school system.

(on camera): What are you going to do? And what's the plan?

CARRERO: Well, I'm just going to watch him consistently. Any little thing that he gets is going to be an alarm for me. He's 8 years old and it's scary and I have to see what's going to happen with him. I pray that nothing's going to come of this but you just don't know.


GUPTA: Another thing I learned in doing this story, as many as one in three schools have air quality so bad, it can cause breathing problems. Sometimes, there are rules to protect kids. It's just those rules aren't always enforced.

In New York City, for example, it's illegal for cars and trucks to idle for more than one minute outside a school, because toxic exhaust fumes can seep into the building. But in the past year in the entire Bronx, that's the home of P.S-51, police issued just 12 tickets for breaking that law.

Health advocates say the city needs to step it up. Last month, the mayor said he would look into it but also said officers have more serious things to tackle first.

It's time for a short break. But I'm going to be right back with a special preview of my upcoming documentary.



GUPTA: On any given Friday, at countless American schools, more than 4 million kids are playing tackle football. They're our kids and they're going head-to-head and helmet-to-helmet.

I'll tell you a lot of things about this. We know it's not all fun and games. We know it can be dangerous at times.

At J.H. Rose High School in North Carolina, they saw all of this firsthand three years ago, the worst happened to this championship team.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My little brother, he's not moving, he needs help breathing. I mean, I just lost it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Waller was tackled, walked to the sidelines and collapsed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Friday's death of Waller is being felt across --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a tough time for the whole community.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So, we had a tragedy and it really brought it all to the forefront.

GUPTA: We spent the season with the Rose Rampants, a team trying hard now to turn tragedy into triumph. And questions came up over and over again: can you play safe and still win at football? Can you play safe and still have football be football?

The answer is yes -- but like most things that count, it doesn't come easily. You're about to meet the players, the families and doctors who will tell you something that you might not want to hear, but it's also something that may just save our kids.


GUPTA: And you will meet those kids if you see "Big Hits, Broken Dreams." That's my documentary, next Sunday, the 29th at 8:00 p.m., only here on CNN.

Well, thanks for being with us today. Time to get you back in the CNN newsroom for a check of your top stories making news right now.