For nearly two decades, community members have suggested the old Bayshore High School building has caused illnesses in former students and staff.
The school district’s response has been to conduct tests to determine what could be making former students sick. The district hired experts to test for contaminants in the building, soil, water and air that could have been causing elevated cancer rates, autoimmune disorders and birth defects.
Boxes of data from years of testing sit in the school district offices.
Turns out, that was the backward approach. Rather than looking for the cause of an alleged cancer cluster, officials learned Thursday they should first determine whether a cluster exists, and then try to find out what caused it.
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“We are in reverse,” said Jennifer Bencie, the administrator for Florida Department of Health in Manatee County, told the School Board of Manatee County and the Manatee County Board of Commissioners during a joint meeting Thursday afternoon.
The boards had convened to discuss claims that the old Bayshore building is the source of a cancer cluster. The building was located at the same large property as the current school at 5401 34th St. W. in Bradenton and was torn down in 1998.
“There are many sources that can cause cancer,” Bencie said. “We can’t just keep looking for environmental issues that cause different types of cancers.”
Bencie recommended gathering medical records from affected former students and staff, and submitting them to the state Department of Health for a scientific analysis to determine if the rates were beyond what would be expected before doing any additional environmental testing.
The sensitivity of the issue was underscored by an audience at the Bradenton Area Convention Center filled with the surviving spouses and parents of cancer victims. They took their turns during a public-comment period to call out the boards for what many described as indifference, and others characterized as a criminal conspiracy.
Many community members urged the boards to consider those who have died.
Rick Speed, a Bayshore High School student who died in 1997 of the rare bone cancer Ewings sarcoma, was eulogized by both his mother Liz Reed and his former teacher, Joe Kane.
“This kid, was so good. And he never never complained,” Kane said as Reed quietly wept.
The process of determining whether a cancer cluster exists is laid out by the federal Centers for Disease Control. To meet the CDC’s definition, a cluster must be a greater number of the same type of cancers than expected, among a limited population, in the same place, during a specific time.
The decision to officially determine whether rates are elevated was insulting to many in the crowd who say the numbers speak for themselves. But county leaders, for the most part, supported Bencie’s recommendation to slow down on the testing and first establish if there truly is an unusually high rate of cancer in the community.
“It’s important that if we are going to go about this, we have to go about it the right way,” said Ron Ciranna, the district’s deputy superintendent for operations. “There are certain procedures and practices that are established. First and foremost, the systematic manner to go about this is to identify a cancer cluster, and we haven’t done that in 20 some years.”
“The first step, you’ve got to have the data,” school board member Dave Miner said. “That first step we heard about has not been done.”
Thus far, the central source for the number of illnesses among the Bayshore community has been Cheryl Jozsa, a Bayshore alumna who began suspecting the old high school was the origin of a cancer cluster after her sister died of cancer in 1999. Jozsa said that as of April 24, 457 people who attended school on the campus have reported health problems to her.
After the meeting, Jozsa said she wouldn’t dispute Bencie’s advice to gather medical records, but she said she had already had her numbers verified by experts who said the cancer rate was far beyond the expected number.
“We’ve already had an epidemiologist and toxicologist look at our information and say they are statistically significant,” Jozsa said.
Richard Smith, a statistics and bio-statistics professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, said the likelihood of Bayshore having the number of leukemia deaths Jozsa has reported is one in a billion.
County leaders were up against a crowd in the convention center that largely rejected claims that the county or school system had done due diligence in trying to find answers. Jozsa and other community members said they were offended by some of the comments made by county officials and school district employees.
School district spokesman Mike Barber told the convened boards that public records requests over the past 10 years reflected an approach of looking for a culprit to blame the sicknesses on. He said activists have pointed their finger at underground storage tanks allegedly contaminating the soil, asbestos in the building and now claim Riverside Products Inc., a defunct metals manufacturing facility a mile north of Bayshore, contaminated the school’s drinking water.
“The target kind of just keeps shifting,” Barber said.
And Rob Brown, the division manager at Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Department, systematically dismissed all of the alleged sources of contamination. He briefed the board on a series of tests showing contamination levels in the soil and water at the site to be at safe levels, and he said it was not possible for contaminated groundwater from Riverside Products to impact the groundwater at Bayshore.
“I don’t know how it (Riverside) has been tagged to be part of this Bayshore discussion,” Brown said. “We didn’t bring it up at the last meeting because really it’s not relevant to our discussion here.”
County utilities officials have provided evidence that students at the school drank municipal water as early as 1985 and likely since the school’s construction in the early 1960s, meaning claims of contaminated well water would be unfounded. Brown said the county had done deep well testing in the area surrounding Riverside and had found no volatile compounds.
Bencie will be the point person leading the efforts to collaborate with the state to gather data and determine if cancer rates are elevated. In the meantime, community members are likely to continue hounding school and county officials for answers.
“If I were running this show, I would haunt it with family members coming in here to remind you of your responsibilities,” Kane told the officials, before directing his instructions to the gathered community members. “Haunt this bloody place until you get some results.”