Spectator file photo
The union representing teachers at Cathedral High School is raising concerns about what they believe is a “disproportional amount” of staff there that have been diagnosed with cancer.
The chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board says officials take this concern “very, very seriously” and are taking action.
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Sergio Cacoilo, president of the local Catholic secondary school teachers’ union, said his members are worried about how the school site could be contributing to the number of cases of cancer among staff since 1995, which they say is 21.
The school, located at 30 Wentworth St. N., was constructed on an old Hamilton Street Railway site that was “contaminated,” he said.
The union believes an old transformer remains underground on the site and could be “leaching into the ground.”
“I’m not saying that’s the case, but there is fear,” Cacoilo said. “There’s a lot of anxiety.”
Chair Pat Daly said he is not aware of a transformer being buried on the site but has asked staff to look into it.
Daly said the HSR handled the cleanup of the site before the board purchased it in 1994. The board received clearance from the Ministry of the Environment before taking ownership, he said. The school opened in September 1995.
“We have no information to suggest that there is a connection between health and the school or the building,” he said.
The union said it tallied the number of cases of cancer, which include lung, prostate and colorectal, from people who have taught at Cathedral since it opened at its current location. They arrived at this number by asking union representatives, teachers, principals and other staff to recall cases, Cacoilo said.
The union asked for the same to be done at other Catholic high schools in the city. Cacoilo said there is an average of about five or six cases at the other schools.
“It’s not a scientific comparison by any means,” he said.
Cacoilo said the issue came to light in the past couple weeks after a teacher at Cathedral was recently diagnosed with cancer and another member died over the weekend.
He said the union notified the board about its concerns approximately two weeks ago, and some teachers have concerns the board isn’t acting quickly enough. Some teachers asked for transfers and others have been seeing their doctors or mental health professionals, Cacoilo said.
“It’s not about slamming the board,” he said. “This is about looking at the issue and seeing if there is a connection … between that place and the number of people being diagnosed with cancer.”
Daly said senior staff became aware of the situation a week ago. Since then, the board has arranged a meeting with public health and will bring in a company to conduct environmental testing of air and soil, ideally over the Christmas break. The test results will be shared, he added.
In 1996, Bell Canada launched an investigation to find out why people working in what was the company’s main Hamilton office at the time had developed cancer.
Initial tests indicated acceptable levels of emissions from office equipment, but some workers believed there was a link between the incidence of cancer and electromagnetic fields from computers.
But a McGill University epidemiologist concluded in 1997 that the high number of cancer cases among workers — initially believed to be 11 but eight were confirmed by the company — had occurred by chance.
Cacoilo said the union has notified the Ministry of Labour about the situation.
An inspector will be assigned to investigate the matter, a ministry spokesperson said in an email to The Spectator.