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‘If a private business were found to have a public health problem,
city departments would be all over it. … But because
the School Department is the landlord, all we hear is the sound
of our own voices.’
When I wrote my column about polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a poisonous chemical and potential carcinogen, at Burncoat and Doherty Memorial high schools for the March 8 Worcester Sun, I had no idea how many staff and students had possibly been impacted.
Initially my wife, who is a teacher at Burncoat, told me she was aware of about a dozen staff who had developed various forms of cancer. By the time I had completed writing my column, the number that we were aware of had doubled to 23.
Then my column was published, and I started getting text messages and emails. An old friend who attended Burncoat when I was a student there, an athlete, had developed cancer when he was a young man. He sent me a list of another half dozen Burncoat athletes we went to school with who also had developed cancer. His own daughter and sister, both students at Burncoat, also got cancer at a relatively young age.
Family members of teachers from Burncoat and Doherty related stories to me about loved ones with cancer. Parents whose children attended one of these two schools and who had gotten sick also commented.
Now, the number was not 10 or even 20, it was much more.
Complete Sun coverage:
- Worcester schools flunking PCBs test, union says
- 7 things to know about PCBs and Worcester schools
- Editorial: Time for turnaround on PCBs
- Where Worcester delayed, Princeton was decisive
- Sun Spots with Hitch [Vol. 102]: PCB pop quiz
- Editorial: In addressing PCBs, offer to test comes with a catch
I have learned about people who worked at or attended one of these schools who had brain tumors, ovarian cancer and prostate cancer. People with leukemia, breast cancer, throat cancer and thyroid cancer were also a part of this group.
Some of these people had lost their battle with cancer. Others, thankfully, were in remission.
I cannot say with any certainty that any of these people got sick as a result of the poisons in these high schools. But I can say that the number of people who developed cancer, in these relatively small populations, is alarmingly high.
I can say that the federal government banned further use of PCBs in 1979 because the chemicals posed a potential serious health risk. And we know that many countries around the world have also banned its use.
I can also say that the initial tests for PCBs, conducted on behalf of the teachers’ union in 2009, showed levels significantly higher than what is considered safe.
According to Richard Nangle’s initial Oct. 2, 2016, Sun report: “EAW representatives at Doherty contacted faculty and staff to say that window caulking at the school had been tested (on April 29, 2009) at 85,600 parts per million of PCB when the allowable limit was 50 ppm.”
And I can say that the mayor, superintendent and School Committee have not done what I, and most people, believe they should have done.
I can say that despite the fact that the School Committee does not admit there is a potential health problem, the system has spent about $54 million removing materials that could harbor PCBs from other city schools. Yet they refuse to fully test the same materials at Burncoat and Doherty.
If there is no problem with PCBs in Worcester schools, why spend so much money removing these materials? And if the matter is serious enough that you would spend millions of tax dollars to clean up the buildings, why not allow EPA-sanctioned testing at Burncoat and Doherty?
It is also important to point out that when the school department was spending millions of dollars to remove these potential toxins from school buildings, they never told parents or staffs the real reason why.
School officials pointed with pride to new lighting in a building. But they never told anyone that they took the old lighting out because of concerns about poisonous chemicals. School officials touted the installation of new windows in a school. But they never mentioned that the old windows were potentially covered with hazardous material.
And now we know that, in addition to PCBs, Burncoat and Doherty also have high levels of lead [see page 16 or scroll down in the window below] in some of their drinking water.
Think about the hypocrisy in the government’s position.
If a private business were found to have a public health problem, city departments would be all over it. Constables would serve notices to the property owners to take immediate action. And you can bet there would be public hearings held with elected officials pounding their chests in support of their constituents. Lawsuits would be threatened – and worse.
But because the School Department is the landlord, all we hear is the sound of our own voices.
This past Thursday, March 16, dozens of school staff members, students, parents, family members and union officials attended the regularly scheduled School Committee meeting.
Rosemary Ridler carried a placard with a picture of her daughter Melanie, who graduated in 1993 from Burncoat. She was a member of the school’s dance team. A mother of three, Melanie died of colon cancer in 2010.
Johnny Robinson spoke eloquently about his beloved wife, Antoinette McClain-Robinson, who taught at Burncoat for a decade. She died last May of lung cancer. Holding her picture as he spoke, he said, “Today, I don’t have my angel with me.”
Timary Harrity, a junior from Doherty, whose mother is a teacher, spoke for her fellow classmates.
At the start of the School Committee meeting, the board recognized and congratulated a group of students who had won positions in the Central Massachusetts Festival Band. Several of these students attend Burncoat and Doherty. I could not help but notice the irony – students being touted for their achievements while the school department refused to protect them in their school buildings.
While we do not know exactly what the impact of these hazardous materials has been, we do know that many of the people who worry about this issue no longer trust the School Committee to tell them the truth, to protect them and to do the right thing.
To regain their trust, the mayor and School Committee must do three things. All three are reasonable and accomplished easily.
First, the School Committee must admit there is a potentially serious health threat in these buildings. They must admit that they have already spent $54 million for a reason – that PCBs are a potentially serious threat to students and staff.
Second, the School Committee needs to come to an agreement with the teachers’ union relative to testing the materials in question. Such an agreement must include following EPA standards. An agreement will mean the School Committee and staff proceed together as a team rather than as adversaries.
Finally, the School Committee needs to develop a written plan for testing, remediation and removal of hazardous materials. This plan should include short- and long-term action items with specific dates attached. The school administration presented such a plan for the remediation and elimination of copper and lead in school drinking water at the recent School Committee meeting. They need to do the same for the PCBs at Doherty and Burncoat.
More from the March 19-25 Worcester Sun:
- A Sunday conversation with Jim McGovern
- Sinacola on continuing the Crusade at Holy Cross
- Hitch: Worcester springs into action
- Worcester Weekly | Inbox | Worcester Games
This issue is important to me. Certainly, I feel strongly because my wife is one of the teachers who has had cancer. But Burncoat was my high school and my wife was a student at Doherty. These are our classmates, our friends and our neighbors. These are the students who fill my wife’s classroom and the colleagues she works with.
I do not have much to offer anyone. But I do have a voice that some people respect. And I plan on using my voice on behalf of the staff and students in our schools until this issue is dealt with properly.
Raymond V. Mariano is a Worcester Sun columnist. He comments on his hometown every Sunday in Worcester Sun.