Teachers at ‘blue water’ school vote to strike over health fears

Teachers at a school built on a toxic landfill site where four staff were diagnosed with the same rare cancer have voted to strike over health fears.

Picture: Thomas Nugent/Geograph.org.uk
Picture: Thomas Nugent/Geograph.org.uk

And two of the four teachers at Buchanan High School with the form of bladder cancer have spoken out for the first time and called for a public enquiry.

A public meeting this week was packed with angry parents and staff demanding answers over serious concerns about the safety of the toxic waste site in North Lanarkshire, Scotland.

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Buchanan High, which provides special needs education and St Ambrose High share the Coatbridge campus built on a former landfill site used by Gartsherrie Ironworks for industrial waste, including hazardous substances such as arsenic, nickel and lead.

Last year pupils and staff were told to drink bottled water after the mains supply ran blue.

The NASUWT union said teachers have been left with no choice but to take industrial action.

Their union spokesman Eddie Carroll said: “None of our teachers have taken this step lightly.

The two teachers who worked into the same corridor at Buchanan High have now both now retired but have urged all their former colleagues and pupils to have full health checks.

One of the teachers, aged 69, who moved with pupils to the new school when it opened in 2012, said: “I decided to speak out because I was so angry after attending the public meeting on Thursday which was supposed to allay fears and reassure staff and parents.

“In fact, all it did was make everyone very angry because nobody feels we are being told the full truth.

“We were asked to believe categoric assurances that the school was safe but no convincing evidence was presented to back that up.”

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The teacher added: “Frankly it being revealed four of us had bladder cancer was a huge relief.

“A great weight was taken off our shoulders because finally the truth was out. We no longer felt we were suffering in secret.”

The teacher, who was diagnosed last May, has had a large tumour removed from his bladder. He is still undergoing chemotherapy.

He said: “I was the third teacher to get diagnosed. Nothing prepares you for the moment you are told you have cancer. It was terrifying.

“When you hear that word, you think that’s it’. You worry that you might not make it. But I’m lucky. I’m still here, determined to keep fighting cancer and determined to see the truth getting out.”

The teacher said he was moved to tears at Thursday’s meeting, held in a community centre next to the schools, on seeing how distraught some parents were.

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Teachers at school built on ‘toxic site’ have the same rare cancer

He said: “It was deeply upsetting seeing all these parents desperately worried, some crying, others just very angry. I saw the mum whose son suddenly became blind, and it makes you feel dreadful when all you hear are denials from those in charge without the test results and evidence to support those denials.

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“I feel betrayed and angry. Those parents feel the same, and I don’t blame them one bit.”

“I kept hearing the phrase there is no significant risk to health’ - so what are four teachers with the same bladder cancer if they are not significant?

“Everyone at that school campus needs to have a thorough health check, and we need an open examination of what is going on. The only way that will ever happen is if there is an independent inquiry.”

The second teacher to develop bladder cancer thought he was “just unlucky” when he was diagnosed in 2015.

He said: “The first teacher got the same diagnosis the year before. When I was diagnosed I thought it was strange, but told myself I was just unlucky. But when the third teacher got bladder cancer, I knew something was very wrong.

“By the time the fourth teacher was diagnosed, I was convinced there has to be something at that site causing a cancer cluster.”

The teacher, 67 said surgeons removed a cancerous area of his bladder, and he requires continuous monitoring.

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He said: “I’d been looking forward to a long, active retirement. Instead, I’ve had to learn how to live with cancer. I will always have that hanging over me.”

The pensioner said he was “furious” that last week’s public meeting left everyone with more questions than answers.

He said: “The people I blame for this awful situation are the councillors who voted through plans to build a special needs school on a toxic dump site.

“The children at Buchanan already had complex health issues and the last thing they need is going to school on a toxic dump site.

“If I’d known then what I know now, there’s no way I would have gone to work at that school.

North Lanarkshire Council decided on the site for the two new schools at the former Gartsherrie works despite local opposition.

Thousands of gallons of wet sewage had been disposed of at the site, and it is criss-crossed by abandoned mine shafts.

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In a report by SEPA for the council in 2010, the environment agency raised concerns that only 10 areas on the site had been monitored for groundwater sampling and monitoring out of a potential 26.

And they warned that the assessments being used were inadequate for pollutants such as arsenic, benzene, chromium, boron, lead, nickel and phenol, and that a statistical summary for leaching was not appropriate for that site.

Hundreds of parents demanded answers to their concerns over health risks at a packed public meeting on Thursday.

Andrew McPherson, head of regulatory services at North Lanarkshire Council, said the school had been built to meet the “very highest criteria” of safety standards. However, the meeting became increasingly tense as parents accused officials of failing to provide evidence for their assurances.

One mother shouted: “I don’t believe you for a minute. You are just totally lying. It is ridiculous. Would you send your kids here? You are not answering the questions.”

Others raised concerns about “unexplained symptoms” their children had been suffering, including tiredness, sickness, sore heads and stomach problems.

Mum Josie Morgan was in tears as she stood up and addressed the meeting. She has concerns that her son Tommi’s sudden eyesight loss is linked to the school. She said: “Before my son started at Buchanan High in August he had perfect 20/20 vision. By October he was completely blind.”

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Cries of “shame on you” directed at council officials were heard as she sat down.

North Lanarkshire Council said: “Specialist doctors from the public health department of NHS Lanarkshire have confirmed that no incidence of cancer is linked to the schools.

“They have also confirmed that no other serious illness is connected to the schools or the site on which they are built.”

The Scottish Government said: “The public health minister has made clear that he supports the call for a thorough investigation into what can be done to mitigate any potential risks and for the local health board and council to listen to the concerns of parents, pupils and staff.”

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