Study details school cancer-hazard cases

Report links illnesses of students, chemicals found in soil at 15 sites


While being treated for leukemia seven years ago, Kim Tolnar, a 1983 graduate of River Valley High School near Marion, Ohio, was contacted by another woman who had attended the same school in the late 1980s and was afflicted with the same disease.

The two young women soon discovered nine other cases of leukemia among the more than 5,500 students who had attended the school since it opened in 1963. The number of cases in a population that size over that period of time would ordinarily be expected to be three, statisticians said.

Though district officials knew the school had been built on the site of an Army depot, not until the leukemia cases surfaced did they learn that part of the site had been an Army dump for solvents and automotive lubricants.

The story of River Valley High and the arguments for and against closing it are in one of 15 case studies in a report released by a coalition of parent and community activists known as the Child Proofing Our Communities Campaign. The report's authors said that serious health problems reported by graduates of schools built on old landfills and factory sites were increasing, but that districts continued to rely on such sites for schools.

In describing the appeal of such locations, school districts point to the pressures of escalating enrollments and real estate prices, and they argue that there is little cause for concern unless a link between the chemicals on a site and a cluster of cancers can be confirmed. Districts also say that clusters of cancer cases can simply be a statistical aberration.

Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, the director of the Center for Children's Health and the Environment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, who was not involved in the study, said: "I don't think anyone would disagree with the proposition that children should go to school in a safe place. The critical issue is where you set the threshold. The way in which regulation works in most circumstances is that chemicals are considered innocent until proven guilty. But when there's a preponderance of evidence, I think it's probably more reasonable to act."

In the case of River Valley High, in a rural community about 45 miles north of Columbus, about half of the school's 78 acres have been fenced off, including several ball fields where chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer were detected.

State and district officials contend that those at the school face no risks, so it will remain on the site until at least 2003, when a new school is scheduled to be built. But people who believe they are poisoning victims are not pleased.

"It infuriates me that there are kids right now going to school there," said Tolnar, whose cancer is in remission. "There are parents who know about what happened to us, and they still don't get it."

Among the other cases examined in the report was that of a high school in Elmira, N.Y., where 22 cases of cancer, including testicular cancer, were confirmed among 7,500 people who attended the school in the last two decades. The land on which the school was built had been used for various industrial purposes as far back as the Civil War. State officials have declared the school safe, but parents dispute those findings.

That such cases can be complicated is underscored by the fight over River Valley High.

Tests have revealed elevated levels of benzopyrene, a carcinogen similar to the tar in cigarettes, and tricholorethylene, a widely used solvent that might be carcinogenic, in the soil. But state health and environmental officials have said that there is no way for students to ingest or inhale them, particularly with ball fields closed.

"Contaminated doesn't mean it's dangerous," said Thomas G. Shade, the superintendent of the River Valley school district.

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