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UPDATE: Lower Mainland school given all-clear in air quality test

Tests undertaken at Maple Ridge school after a number of cancer diagnoses
SD42 has assessed Alouette Elementary for asbestos, mould, air quality, water quality, and all custodial supplies and pest control supplies used at the school were reviewed. (Alouette Elementary photo)

There is no “reason to believe” there is an environmental threat to the health and safety of staff and students at Alouette Elementary.

That is the conclusion of Fraser Health after viewing the final results of air quality testing that was conducted, one of many tests at the school.

Testing followed reports that a number of staff – who worked in one wing of the building, – had been diagnosed with breast cancer during the past couple of years.

School district superintendent Harry Dhillon sent out a letter to families on Wednesday, Jan. 25, to inform them of the results and noted that the results had also been shared with WorkSafeBC and the BC Centre for Disease Control.

“WorkSafeBC has confirmed that the results meet regulation requirements, and the BCCDC also advised that, upon reviewing the air quality results, they have no concerns,” he noted in his letter.

Medical health officer Dr. Cheryl Young noted that students and staff at the elementary school could and should continue to attend class.

Dhillon advised that BC Cancer is assessing if the number of cases reported is consistent with normal amounts of cancer diagnosed over time.

When information first came to light late last week, The News contacted the district for details. They would not say how many staff at Alouette Elementary had been diagnosed with cancer during the past couple of years.

The school district could only confirm that a number of staff had received a breast cancer diagnosis during the past two years.

The most recent diagnosis came in November. The board has been investigating since that time.

“All Alouette staff were aware of the steps the school district was taking throughout the process,” said Irena Pochop, spokesperson for the Maple Ridge Pitt Meadows School District.

“We’re not going to be able to speak to anything that would identify the staff who have been impacted by the diagnosis, because we want to protect their privacy,” added Pochop.

A letter was sent out to parents from Dhillon on Friday, Jan. 20. In it, Dhillon noted that the school district reached out to WorkSafe BC, the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), and the medical health officer for guidance in November.

In addition, the district also began to proactively conduct environmental testing for carcinogens in the school. Dhillon said the school has been assessed for asbestos, mould, air quality, water quality, and all custodial supplies used at the school were reviewed.

The school district contracted an occupational health and safety consulting company to review the school’s inventory of friable asbestos, which could be released into the air, in the building. Paint samples were collected from the classrooms, a full chemistry test of the water quality was conducted, and another company tested the school for mould. In addition to reviewing the custodial supplies, an inventory of products used for pest control was also taken.

None of the results identified any possible sources that could cause breast cancer. The results were shared with the BCCDC, WorkSafe BC, and the medical health officer, who confirmed the testing and advised that the next step is for BC Cancer Agency to complete an assessment, advised Dhillon.

The district could not declare this a “cancer cluster.”

“This has not been assessed a cancer cluster. That is an assessment BC Cancer will need to make,” Prochop noted.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society a cancer cluster is described as a greater than expected number of cancer cases within a group of people in a geographic area over a period of time.

Andrea Visscher, a spokesperson for BC Cancer, said any potential disease clusters, including cancer clusters, are taken very seriously by the provincial organization.

Visscher confirmed that BC Cancer has been contacted about the Alouette Elementary situation, and is currently assessing whether this case reflects a cancer cluster. She noted that the process to identify this as a cancer cluster is a four-step procedure, and they are currently on step two of that process, which is to “determine whether or not what has been reported is consistent with normal amounts of cancer diagnosed over time.” Cancer clusters, she said, are investigated by epidemiologists, or scientists who study the frequency, distribution, causes, and control of diseases in populations.

READ ORIGINAL: School district looking into cancer cases at Maple Ridge school

“Since 1990, BC Cancer has been involved in approximately eight cancer cluster inquiries related to B.C. schools. None of these inquiries found evidence of a cancer cluster,” said Visscher.

A spokesperson for WorkSafeBC confirmed the agency is not conducting an investigation into the cancer cases at Alouette Elementary, but they recently provided consultative support to an investigation being conducted by the employer.

“We don’t have any other information to share at the moment,” said WorkSafeBC spokesperson Yesenia Dhott. The Alouette Elementary Parent Advisory Council told The News they had no comment at this time and referred The News to superintendent Dhillon.

Still, parents are worried.

A lawyer whose firm handles class-action lawsuits has reached out to The News, looking for more information about the situation after being approached by at least one parent from the school whose child was diagnosed with cancer.

ALSO: More breast cancer patients can choose smaller surgery

Students and staff still occupied the wing of the school while testing was completed, noted Pochop.

But Dhillon reiterated the health and safety of students and staff is always their top priority and the district is committed to following any and all direction they receive from public health experts.

He asked parents who want to talk to their children about the issue to reach out to the school’s counsellor. Or if there are any concerns to talk to a family doctor, health professional, or call 811.

The district is also inviting concerned staff and parents to submit any health questions related to the matter anonymously at The district will share the questions with experts at BCCDC and Fraser Health and provide the answers when they are received.

The News has also reached out to the Maple Ridge Teachers Association, and is awaiting response

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Colleen Flanagan

About the Author: Colleen Flanagan

I got my start with Black Press Media in 2003 as a photojournalist.
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