Alouette Elementary School in Maple Ridge, BC, is under investigation for possible pollution after several staff members – all in the same wing of the school – have been diagnosed with breast cancer over the past two years.
Officials are investigating a potential environmental health threat at a BC elementary school after several staff members were diagnosed with breast cancer, Glacier Media has confirmed.
The cases all appear to be confined to a single wing of Alouette Elementary School in Maple Ridge, BC. An undisclosed number of employees in that wing have tested positive for breast cancer over the course of two years. The latest diagnosis came before this year’s winter break, a School District 42 spokeswoman said. The spokeswoman said she couldn’t disclose the exact number of cases for privacy reasons.
“It’s just weird. They are all in the same wing of the school. It’s the same four classrooms,” mother Amanda Jackson told Glacier Media.
“Unfortunately, my son’s teacher was the last case. His teacher from last year too.”
Last year, Jackson said her son and his friends were “constantly ill.” At first she thought nothing of it – like many children, she thought they were just passing around germs in a school of more than 400 students. Then the COVID-19 restrictions were eased and parents were finally allowed back to school.
“My nose is running. You just don’t feel good. It’s hard to breathe,” she said. “It’s an old building…I just assumed it was asbestos or mold or something.”
That is, until more and more people started feeling that way, Jackson said.
The investigation into the school contamination is ongoing
Following the recent diagnosis, the school district contacted WorkSafeBC, the BC Center for Disease Control (BCCDC) and the local medical health officer, district spokeswoman Irena Pochop said.
Fraser Health said it is not conducting an environmental survey at Alouette Elementary, “but we know the district is conducting testing and we have been in communication with the school,” Health Department spokesman Nick Eagland wrote in an email.
A WorkSafeBC spokesperson, meanwhile, told Glacier Media that it recently provided “advisory support” to an investigation conducted by the employer, School District 42.
Pochop said the school district has begun environmental testing, looking for crumbling asbestos and mold, and testing air and water quality. Investigators are also checking school storage materials for contamination.
“We are still awaiting the results of the air quality tests, but all results have been received and shared with the BCCDC, WorkSafeBC and the Medical Health Officer, who confirmed that the tests have not identified any possible sources that could cause breast cancer…” Pochop said in an email.
These agencies and health officials advised the school district that the next step will include an evaluation by the BC Cancer Agency.
According to the agency, a disease cluster can occur when a group of people have something in common, like their jobs or where they live. But cancer is a collection of over 100 different diseases. Many have multiple triggers for this disease. In other cases, the triggers are unknown.
“Therefore, sudden cancer outbreaks are not viewed in the same way as infectious diseases,” the agency notes on its website.
“The next example occurs when groups are occupationally exposed to a very potent carcinogen, or are briefly exposed to a potent carcinogen.”
The agency points to survivors of the radiation exposure they received from the atomic bomb blasts in Japan after World War II. But even in this case, “this cancer cluster arose gradually and over many years.”
Glacier Media contacted the BC Cancer Agency on Thursday, January 19 to confirm if they are conducting an investigation and if so, what they have learned. A spokesman for the provincial health authority, which is speaking to the press on BC Cancer’s behalf, said it couldn’t give an answer “the earliest it could be next week.”
Pochop said classes had not been suspended in the part of the school under investigation and the medical health official had not raised any concerns about the students’ safety.
“While we are committed to following up on employee concerns, we also recognize and seek to respect the right to privacy of employees affected by their diagnosis,” she said.
Asbestos exposure is one of the leading killers of workers in BC
Although it is not yet clear what caused the cancer incidence to rise, occupational exposures in BC schools were known to have caused cancer in the past.
Previous studies by WorkSafeBC have identified cases of lung cancer and mesothelioma — a rare form of cancer commonly caused by asbestos exposure and usually affecting the linings around the organs in the chest — among people who work in BC schools that are undergoing renovations . These risks are particularly high in buildings built before 1990.
Between 2002 and 2021, WorkSafeBC recorded 1,112 worker deaths related to asbestos exposure. Of these, 95 percent were male and 59 percent were between 71 and 85 years old.
But according to the American Cancer Society and WorkSafeBC, people exposed to asbestos typically experience a 20- to 30-year latency period before receiving a cancer diagnosis.
In addition to the negative asbestos test results, none of the agencies contacted for this story provided information to suggest the teachers had been exposed to an environmental toxin like asbestos for several decades.
Built in 1989, Alouette Elementary was due for an interior and exterior upgrade in 2022 and the building envelope is scheduled for refurbishment according to a 2024-2024 strategic facility plan.
“The only remaining school in the Central Capital Zone with building envelope rehabilitation requirements is Alouette Elementary,” the plan reads.
However, there is no evidence that the age and condition of the building contributed to the cancer diagnoses.
Suspicion of school cancer cluster not unknown
In other jurisdictions, suspected school cancer clusters have been traced to a range of environmental pressures.
In December 2022, University of Iowa investigators determined there was likely no cancer cluster at a local school after 12 teachers were diagnosed with breast cancer for over a decade.
At a New Jersey high school, more than 100 former students and staff were diagnosed with brain and other central nervous system cancers over a 30-year period. A former student who tested positive for cancer told local reporters last year he believes the cases may be linked to a nearby facility once used to process, pack, store and ship uranium as part of the Manhattan project was used. However, an environmental study conducted last year found no traces of radiological contamination, according to a May report by NBC.
And in 2019, the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Human Services found that over the course of a decade, four diagnoses of a rare tumor among students and staff were not “consistently or statistically significantly higher than expected,” a local newspaper reported.
Back at Maple Ridge, Pochop said her investigation continues under the direction of the medical health officer.
“The health and safety of our students and staff is always our top priority and we are committed to following any guidance we receive from public health experts,” Pochop said.