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Investigation: Anger and betrayal – Teachers who got rare cancer while working at school built on toxic landfill call for public inquiry

Buchanan High with corridor highlighted where four teachers diagnosed with cancer worked, and, left, the Gartsherrie works
Buchanan High with corridor highlighted where four teachers diagnosed with cancer worked, and, left, the Gartsherrie works

Two teachers struck down with the same rare cancer while working in the same corridor at a school built on a toxic landfill site have revealed how they feel betrayed.

The men, who are both battling bladder cancer, called for a public inquiry into potential health risks at Buchanan High.

The pair – two of four teachers who worked at the Lanarkshire school who have the same rare form of cancer – have retired but have urged their former colleagues and pupils to have full health checks.

North Lanarkshire Council says the site is safe and there is no evidence to link illness with contamination of air, soil or water at the site.

However, the teachers spoke to The Sunday Post after officials told a packed meeting of parents last week that there was no connection between the cancers and the school.

Buchanan High 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.

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.”

Two weeks ago, we revealed the four teachers at the school – three in the same corridor – had the same rare cancer and also told how a mum was demanding answers after her son, a pupil at Buchanan High, suddenly lost his sight and tests found a high level of arsenic in his body.

The teacher added: “Frankly, The Post revealing 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.

A teacher that taught at Buchanan High/ St Ambrose school in Coatbridge who contracted bladder cancer.

He said: “I was the third teacher to get diagnosed.

“I’d been running to the toilet more than usual. When I saw blood in my urine, I realised I had to get checked, and quickly. Nothing prepares you for the moment you are told you have cancer. It was as if my whole world had collapsed from under me.

“It was terrifying.

“My wife was crying because it’s such a shock and she could see I was scared. When you hear that word, you think ‘that’s it’. You worry that you might not make it. But I’m lucky. Surgeons removed a large tumour from my bladder and I’ve been through several rounds of chemotherapy but I’m still here, determined to keep fighting cancer and determined to see the truth getting out.”

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

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.

“I feel betrayed and angry. Those parents feel the same, and I don’t blame them one bit because I heard nothing from the health board officials or the council to back up their assertions that the site is safe.

“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.”

Buchanan High is a non-denominational school for 96 pupils with additional support needs and shares a campus with St Ambrose High, which has 1,200 pupils.

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

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, who does not live near the school, which offers specialist education for children with special needs, said surgeons removed a cancerous area of his bladder, and he requires continuous monitoring.

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: “I could almost have felt sorry for the officials who were there making statements on behalf of the health board and local authority, because at the end of the day they’re just employees being told what to say.

“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.

“I feel sorry for the teachers, who all have families and mortgages to pay so need to keep working there.

“And I feel even more sorry for the parents and pupils who just don’t know what to do now.”

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.

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.

The metal manganese had been found in “potentially significant concentrations” but SEPA said soil analysis had not been carried out. And the agency warned “potentially significant pollutant” links had been found on site, calling for almost 60 further pieces of work to be undertaken.

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.”

The Parents

The public meeting on 6th June

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

Before the meeting started, it was clear many more people had turned up than expected. It had been due to take place at Townhead Community Centre, on the school campus, but was moved to the school’s main hall to make room for 400 parents.

Council and NHS officials opened the meeting with a series of presentations outlining why they believe the joint school campus for Buchanan High and St Ambrose in Coatbridge is safe for pupils and staff.

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 – revealed in The Sunday Post – 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.”

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

Politicians and parents made repeated calls for an independent inquiry to be carried out, with calls for the Scottish Government to become involved.

As the 90-minute session drew to a close, Fulton MacGregor, the MSP for Coatbridge and Chryston who set up the meeting, said: “The purpose of tonight was to reassure and provide answers. I don’t think we have seen that.”