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02 July 2017

Rhode Island: North Providence: Among Elementary Teachers, Worries Mount Over Possible 'Cancer Cluster'

"Kids Come First!"
Among elementary teachers, worries mount over possible ‘cancer cluster’
by Brittany Ballantyne, Valley Breeze Staff Writer, 27 June 2017

NORTH PROVIDENCE – With demolition dates nearing, North Providence teachers say they’re still in fear of a possible “cancer cluster” at two elementary schools in town.

James L. McGuire and Dr. Joseph Whelan Elementary are the focus of the concerns, as 20 current and former teachers have been diagnosed with cancer, mostly breast and pancreatic cancer.

McGuire and Stephen Olney Elementary are both on track to be demolished in the next few weeks, and new schools will be built on those sites.

Teachers are urging that some form of a study is completed before the McGuire building, built in the 1930s, is leveled.

They’re also hoping the Whelan facility is investigated thoroughly, and say more could have been done to eradicate health problems at the schools, including mold, heating systems and asbestos, over the years.

“What causes this disease? We really don’t know.”

Mayor Charles Lombardi said school departments are mandated by the Rhode Island Department of Education and Department of Health to conduct various studies to evaluate building conditions. He said if there is any type of remediation needed, towns are required to solve those issues.

Lombardi said these reports for both Olney and McGuire came back and were not alarming, and said asbestos testing is one of the many factors analyzed in the studies.

Neither of these studies were provided by the School Department as of press time.

Cancer hits home for Lombardi, who lost his first wife to the disease when she was 45 years old.

“I’ve been through this personally,” he said.

With the exception of lung cancer, which can be attributed to the air someone is breathing, he said, “What would cause pancreatic or breast (cancer)? We really don’t know.”

Lombardi said he wouldn’t be surprised if any long-time employee that had been working for a school department, agency or major business that employs hundreds of people had heard similar scenarios, or become ill themselves.

“The only thing I can guarantee you … is that we are and will continue to take all the necessary precautions to make sure all the teachers, parents and students are kept healthy,” he said.

“How do you prove it?”

Mary Lou Wiese, a North Providence native now living in Connecticut, was one of several teachers diagnosed with breast cancer while working in the district for more than 20 years.

Wiese retired in 2014 after 22 years of teaching, but continued to work as a substitute in 2014 at McGuire, where she spent her last four years of her career as a full-time teacher. Before that, she worked 17 years at Stephen Olney.

It was April 2012 when she was informed she had a cancerous tumor, and she went through chemotherapy during the summer months.

“If anybody could plan cancer for a teacher, it couldn’t have been any better,” she said.

She received 33 rounds of radiation the next school year, getting treatments after the school days ended.

But her question, like other teachers in the district, was, “How do you prove it?”

How does one link these school buildings to cancer?

Joseph Wendelken, spokesperson for Department of Health, said RIDOH is not conducting an investigation, but is working to analyze historical information on staff members. Using that data, he explained, the department can examine the cancer registry “to determine if there was anything abnormal in terms of the cancer rate.”

Wendelken told The Breeze an individual that contacted the Department of Health felt there might be a connection to an environmental health issue and an illness at a North Providence school. Wendelken said RIDOH has not received any other reports.

“When looking at any community, we unfortunately see a lot of cancer. Roughly 50% of people will be diagnosed with some form of cancer at some point in their lives. The goal of this analysis will be to determine if an abnormal amount of cancer with common environmental origins exists,” he stated in an email.

That analysis, he said, will be thorough, and will likely take several weeks to complete.

Brownfields case study

Wiese and Debra Mesolella, who taught at Whelan for 23 years and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, spoke of a former jewelry manufacturing facility operating near the Whelan property.

The former Cal’s Jewelry Findings Company, and its subsidiary Merit Plating Company, became subject to a case study by the Department of Environmental Management more than a decade ago after numerous containers of waste materials were found, and areas inside and outside the property showed chemical staining.

As a result of that study, a settlement agreement required that a portion of the soil beneath the facility, and the former machinery room, “be restricted from contact by future workers.”

Mesolella noted that Whelan was built in the former “jewelry district.”

She said her husband, Mike, had a conference call in early June with a Department of Health representative and professor from Brown University, an expert on cancer, who told Mike that while data doesn’t show plating for jewelry metals is related to breast cancer, it could be be a cause of pancreatic cancer.

“You’ve got metals and minerals, and how do they dispose of it?” Wiese said, noting that there were more illnesses at Whelan than McGuire.

Both facilities, the two said, had their fair share of mold and asbestos issues.

“They put a Band-Aid 
over it”

Wiese said it was last November that she started to realize how many teachers in North Providence schools were diagnosed with cancer, and began to form a connection to their illnesses after talking with faculty members.

She said that in 2013, it was determined that her classroom at McGuire needed new flooring because of concerns about asbestos. She was directed to move all of her materials out of the classroom that summer, and returned months later to find that the floor was not replaced. Instead, a “cheap” carpet blanketed the tiles.

“They put a Band-Aid over it,” she said, saying budget constraints were to blame.

By the middle of September, she said, that carpet was wearing away. The seams of the covering were the worst areas, and there were holes in the carpet where children moved their desks and chairs around.

That carpet, she said, was still there when she retired the following year, despite her vocalizing the problem to school administration and parents.

Mesolella said when concerns were raised by teachers, “It wasn’t that it was ... unnoticed, it’s just that it was never was never an in-depth, thorough event.”

Mesolella also noted that after teachers, past and present, started talking about cancer as a group, she realized every teacher that worked in one McGuire hallway was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It seems beyond a coincidence,” she said.

Now, she’s urging officials to “go the extra mile” in addressing building issues that may relate to health, like mold or asbestos tiles.

Wiese held back tears when she said she recently had a five-year check-up showing no cancer. But like other teachers who have battled cancer, she expects her troubles may not end here.


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