Maria Sykes
Maria Sykes
May 31, 2019 ·  3 min read

Teachers at School Built on ‘Toxic Site’ Have the Same Rare Cancer

After years of throwing toxic waste into a landfill, one Scottish municipality decided it was the perfect location to build a high school for students with special needs. But just seven years after the school opened, teachers and parents of Buchanan High School in Coatbridge are outraged that four staff members have developed the same rare cancer. All while their school council turns a blind eye.

Re-purposed Landfills More Common Than You Think

Buchanan High School opened in 2012 over a formerly active landfill which Gartsherrie Ironworks used to dispose of hazardous materials. (1) It might seem appalling that a landfill with known toxins such as arsenic, nickel, and lead, but the practice is actually quite common- in the United States, too!

The National Waste and Recycling Association reported that the USA once had as many as 8,000 active landfills, but that number has decreased to just about 3,000. No, the trash hasn’t biodegraded already. Rather, these full landfills have been transformed into community parks, conservation areas, solar energy, and sports complexes. (2)

In order to go from one man’s trash to another man’s playground, landfills must first be “capped”, a process in which: (2)

For Hazardous Waste:

  1. Synthetic material covers the waste and is topped with two feet of clay.
  2. A drainage layer is installed to remove toxic liquids as the trash decomposes.
  3. Topsoil is added to the top, and the landfill is declared ready to be converted.
  4. Legislation under the 1988 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act requires monitoring of the site for 30 years.

For Non-Hazardous Trash:

  1. The bottom of the landfill is lined (not drained)
  2. Synthetic material covers the waste and is topped with clay.
  3. Topsoil is added to the top, and the landfill is declared ready to be converted.
  4. Legislation under the 1988 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act requires monitoring of the site for 30 years.

4 Teachers at Buchanan High School Diagnosed with the Same Cancer

Four teachers at a Scottish school built on a toxic landfill site have reportedly developed the same rare form of bladder cancer. Three of the four worked in close proximity- sharing the same hallway for their classes.

Students and staff had reportedly been warned not to consumer any of the school’s tap water after an incident in which it turned blue. One parent of a student with autism who experienced sudden blindness is demanding to get to the bottom of the cause. She suspects it has everything to do with leaking contaminants from the decommissioned landfill. Her son reportedly had been discovered to have notably high levels of arsenic. (1)

The Canadian Cancer Society lists arsenic and occupational exposure to chemicals among the known risk factors of bladder cancer. (3)

Professor Andrew Watterson, of Stirling University’s Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group, who has led studies for the United Nations, commented on the unusual probabilities of the four diagnoses:

“The reported ill-health cases do merit serious investigation and it is understandable that staff, pupils and others who work on the site are anxious. More information must be made available and the process should be ­transparent to address all their concerns and either confirm or allay them as soon as possible.
On the three bladder cancer cases, this seems like a big cluster very close together in the building for a very small population of teachers. Establishing if a cluster is causal or random is, however, notoriously difficult.” (1)

But the North Lanarkshire Council is apparently not convinced. In their public statement, they wrote: “While it is regrettable that any pupil or member of staff suffers from a serious illness, there is no credible evidence to suggest that any such illness has been caused by environmental factors associated with the school site or copper previously being present in the drinking water supply… All test results since November last year indicate the supply meets drinking water standards.” (1)

A group of teachers wrote to their local Member of Scottish Parliament, saying, “We have been told on many ­occasions, including by both previous head teachers, that the water was not a concern. We were told to run taps or boil water. We are outraged with how the council has failed to take our concerns seriously. Staff morale is low because we are frightened to say anything in case we implicate ourselves and lose our jobs.” (4)