Headteacher of Scottish blue water school: building NOT linked to cancer cases

The headteacher of a school built on a former landfill site has insisted it is not linked to a spate of bladder cancer cases.
The school has been under increased scrutiny. Picture: John DevlinThe school has been under increased scrutiny. Picture: John Devlin
The school has been under increased scrutiny. Picture: John Devlin

The safety of two schools - Buchanan High and St Ambrose, in Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire - on the same site has been called into question after four teachers were diagnosed with bladder cancer, and a child went blind.

Teachers from the NASUWT have gone on strike while parents have pulled their children out of school, and a doctor speaking at a public meeting was accused of being a liar.

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The new build school is located on land which had previously been used for burying domestic and industrial waste.

Ahead of construction, remediation work was carried out and the grounds were certified as being safe.

And concerns were raised about water in the school turning blue due to copper pipes, the majority of which have now been replaced.

Headteacher Ellen Douglas insisted she believed the school was not causing cancer.

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Ms Douglas said: "I'm a geographer to trade and I'm a headteacher in terms of occupation.

"I am very respectful, and listen carefully, to people who know more than me.

"I therefore respect that there are experts who can articulate, examine [and] investigate much more than I can.

"I do know about the occurrence of blue water in public buildings, in big buildings .

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"I do know that occurs. So the idea that blue water was present in the building is something that makes sense to me.

"Based on what I understand, and has been shared with me over time from the experts, then it's my belief that this school is not causing cancer.

"People will often look for explanations and depending on how deeply we look for it we can very often come up with answers that don't quite join together."

Ms Douglas said she fully understood the concerns of parents and has empathy for the four teachers, some of whom are now retired, who have cancer.

However, she said that the dates do not add up.

"I understand that the latency period of bladder cancer is something in excess of ten years," she added.

"And given that this campus opened in November 2012, the chronology tells me that that is the case.

"I can't imagine for a minute that people in public health would lie about latency periods, since that will obviously be in the public domain."

At a stormy public meeting earlier this month, Dr David Cromie of NHS Lanarkshire tried to reassure parents but was met with cries of "liar".

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Ms Douglas said: "I felt sorry for Dr Cromie. Sad that it was happening in St Ambrose High school. I felt it was unjust because he came along to present his clear understanding of the situation."

Asked whether she believes there is an anti-expert sentiment in society, she said: "Yes, we can see that thread running through so many aspects of the society that we are part of now.

"It is gut-wrenching to watch a community wounded in the way that this community's been wounded."

Although teachers from NASUWT have taken strike action and more industrial action will happen again next week, others from EIS union were not striking.

Ms Douglas added: "The impact of closure in the remaining days is a loss in education.

"Young people are entitled to their education and they are entitled to it in its broadest sense.

"Our doors are open and we are teaching children."

She translated a Latin phrase and said: "Don't lose what your treasures are.

"And this place is a treasure."

Dr Cromie, a consultant in public health medicine at NHS Lanarkshire," said: The blue water was the internal aspect of the pipe, rather than something coming from outside through the pipe."

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On the case involving the pupil who had lost his sight, Dr Cromie said he is constrained by confidentiality.

But he said: "We do know about the case and our assessment is that there is no risk to people acquiring illness from arsenic at that school."

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