What is making one school’s former students sick? There are no easy answers

A decade has passed since Manatee County leaders investigated whether the old Bayshore High School building could have caused deadly cancers in alumni and former faculty members, birth defects in children and a range of auto-immune disorders.

But in that time, dozens more illnesses and deaths have been blamed on the old building. In just the past month since the topic was raised again at a school board meeting, more than 40 additional people have come forward, claiming Bayshore’s building made them or their loved ones sick.

Now, a new group of elected leaders say they want to investigate the claims. The Board of County Commissioners will discuss the issue Tuesday, and school board members have called for a joint meeting with county commissioners.

But many already know — or will quickly learn — how unlikely it is that claims of a cluster will ever be scientifically or legally verified.

They will also see how maddeningly elusive answers to the most basic questions about the case can be.

‘Be very skeptical’

Cheryl Jozsa, a Bayshore alumnus whose sister died of a rare form of leukemia, believes the old school building is to blame for her sister’s disease. She notes that 449 alumni who attended the school between its opening in 1962 and its closing in 1998 have contacted her, saying they have health problems.

Of those 449 alumni, Jozsa says, 168 have died from cancer. She won’t share many details, including the alumni’s names, saying she promised them confidentiality. But her Facebook page has become a hub for people who believe their loved ones were made ill by the old school.

As staggering as her numbers sound, cancer experts say true clusters — where an environmental contaminant is causing a specific type of cancer — are extremely rare.

Thomas Burke, the associate dean for public health practice and training at Johns Hopkins University, said claims of a cluster are common in a world where one out of every three people get cancer. Burke helped investigate an infamous suspected cancer cluster in Toms River, N.J. The case led to a multimillion-dollar settlement between chemical and water companies and 69 families whose children got leukemia.

“A classic concern is in neighborhoods. (People say), ‘Look at my block, there’s been five cases of cancer,’ ” said Burke. “Well, cancer is our No. 2 killer, and unfortunately it is a very common disease.”

A 2013 report issued by the Centers for Disease Control provides strict parameters for what truly constitutes a cancer cluster.

According to the CDC’s definition, Bayshore would not likely meet the definition of a true cluster, due to the variety of ailments being attributed to the old school. The CDC states a true cluster is one where the cancers are all the same type.

Based on Jozsa’s most recent figures, Bayshore alumni have suffered from breast, lung, colorectal, brain and cervical cancers, along with leukemia, auto-immune disorders and birth defects in their children.

“One common but false assumption ... is that a single environmental contaminant is likely to cause any or all types of cancer,” the CDC report states. “Cancer is not one disease, but rather many different diseases with different causal mechanisms.”

The CDC reports that state and local agencies receive roughly 1,000 inquiries per year about suspected cancer clusters. Of those, the vast majority can be dismissed in one phone call, the 2013 report states.

“Having different types of cancer decreases the probability that you would ever find a common cause,” Burke pointed out.

The Bayshore case also is focused on a school complex where thousands of children, faculty and staff passed through over the course of 36 years. The old building was on the same large property as the current school, located at 5401 34th St. W., Bradenton. The oldest members of the potentially affected population worked at the junior high there in the 1960s. A first-year teacher fresh out of college when the school opened in 1962 would be in their 70s now. As the group ages, cancers are more likely to occur, according to the CDC.

And the Bayshore case does not have a definitive source. Testing has not verified claims of tainted groundwater.

The most significant testing came in 2007, after Jozsa and several other alumni called on local officials for answers. Then-state Rep. Bill Galvano held a large meeting with Bayshore alumni at Blake Medical Center, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection contracted Earth Systems to test the soil and groundwater on the site where two underground storage tanks had been removed.

A 10,000-gallon diesel tank had been removed in 1995, and a 350-gallon tank holding heating oil had been removed in 1989. The tests came back stating “no groundwater impacts were detected above applicable standards,” and Earth Systems recommended no further testing.

Jozsa believes they didn’t test deep enough to reach the site of the tanks. She is calling on officials to test the ground soil again.

Simple questions, debated answers

Despite the results of the 2007 soil tests, much of today’s debate about Bayshore is focusing on the fear of contaminated wells.

But county officials say the school has been on the municipal water system since the early 1980s, meaning any student who attended the school since 1985 (and maybe earlier) was drinking the same water as students at Manatee or Palmetto high schools. And the county’s Environmental Protection Division said no potable wells have ever been built at the school.

The oldest records available from Manatee County Public Utilities Department’s customer information system show a water meter operating at Bayshore High School as early as 1985. The record does not show when the school began receiving service from public utilities, but it does show the school was being billed for water at the 1985 rate.

Public Affairs Liaison Amy Pilson said the record is definitive evidence the school was on potable county water as early as 1985. The source of the school’s water before then is not clear. Newspaper reports at the time indicate county officials considered using well water, but county officials do not have records of any potable wells.

The St. Petersburg Times reported in April 1962 that district officials still had not signed an agreement with a utility company to provide water to the school. Sidney Wilkinson, the architect of the facility, told the school board that if a deal were not reached soon, the district could build wells and water treatment on site. Bill Kittle, the assistant school superintendent at the time, told board members the State Health Board was aware of the possibility of on-site facilities. But an article from July 1962 reported the board authorized expenses to hook up to existing facilities at adjacent Manatee Junior College.

Manatee County’s Environmental Protection Division, which permits the construction of wells in the county, has a record of five or six wells built on the site for irrigation in the 1960s, and none were permitted for drinking water, according to county spokesman Nick Azzara.

“There is no indication there were potable wells ever constructed on the site,” said Rob Brown, manager of the environmental protection division.

But county officials cannot answer definitively when the school began using municipal water.

“If Bayshore was on water provided by a different utility prior to Manatee County taking over/purchasing that utility, we have no way of knowing when that service started,” Pilson wrote in an email.

The meter measuring water usage to the old school went out of service in 1997 when the new high school was built, Water Division Manager Mark Simpson said. He said records of the old meter were destroyed, in accordance with public records laws.

Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said Simpson is correct, and records are destroyed on a statutorily mandated schedule. Under current law, water meter records must be retained for the life of the meter, and then disposed.

Another seemingly simple detail that has eluded local officials: How many students, teachers and staff actually occupied the old building during its 36 years.

School district spokesman Mike Barber said the district did not keep electronic rosters of students until the late 1990s. No records apparently exist to determine how many students attended in the old building when it was a junior high, from 1962 to 1974, nor when it was a high school from 1974 to 1998.

“The school district does not have the means or capability to determine the number of students at Bayshore High or Bayshore Junior High between 1962 to 1998 without devoting considerable resources and time solely to that effort,” Barber said. “We are continuing to investigate ways to obtain this information.”

The state Department of Education does not have enrollment figures prior to 1996. In 1996-97, 1,731 students attended Bayshore and in 1997-98, 1,784 students attended the school, according to DOE spokeswoman Audrey Walden. The school was closed at the end of the 1998 school year.

‘The voice of people’

“I’m a huge believer in God,” Cheryl Jozsa said in a recent phone interview. “I truly believe things happen in our life for a reason.”

Part of her life was spent working as a surgical tech and a paramedic, and she’s now a records specialist for the Lake County School District. The two fields could not have prepared her better for the journey she set on more than 10 years ago.

It started with Jozsa’s sister, Terri Lumsden Jewell. Also a Bayshore alumna, she died in 1999 from a rare form of leukemia. Jozsa didn’t find out until a few years later that two of her sister’s classmates also died from the same illness.

From there, she started a website, which evolved into reports filtering in through word-of-mouth or through her Facebook page, “Bayshore High School, Bradenton, FL Concerned Alumni and Friends.” The page’s photo features the two sisters, smiling.

In an ever-expanding list, Jozsa says she has received reports of 449 people who are either Bayshore alumni who were diagnosed with cancer, alumni who died from cancer, alumni who were diagnosed with autoimmune diseases, or children of alumni who were born with birth defects:

▪ A 2011 graduate who started to feel sick when he went to the old Manatee Technical College building found out he had a form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

▪ A four-sport athlete who wanted to go pro died of colon cancer at 26.

▪ A former Bayshore Honeybear dancer who discovered she had ovarian cancer when she was trying to freeze her eggs.

▪ An Army vet who was diagnosed with cancer after spending four years at Bayshore — and believes his son’s autism is connected to the school.

In September 1993, Rick Speed started his freshman year at Bayshore High School. He played defensive end for the Bruins and loved to take out the family boat and camp on empty islands.

“I always found him to be a unique soul,” said his mom, Liz Reed. “Everybody would remember him for his brown eyes and his smile because he had a crooked, pup-eye smile.”

His shoulder had been bothering him, and a doctor initially diagnosed him with a torn rotator cuff. He took anti-inflammatory medication as prescribed, but when he stopped something was wrong.

“His shoulder got like a baseball attached to it,” Reed said.

On May 20, 1996, Rick was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that’s typically found in adolescents. According to the National Institute of Health’s National Library of Medicine, about three in 1 million children are diagnosed with the cancer each year, making up 1.5 percent of all childhood cancers.

A cocktail of chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant were ordered for his treatment. But when his bone marrow was returned to his body after being treated, the cancer “spread like wildfire,” Reed said.

“Even just from the treatment driving home, you’d have to have a bag in the car because he’d be sick right away,” Reed said.

Rick told his mother that he couldn’t do it anymore. He wanted to stop treatments.

“I couldn’t tell him no,” she said.

He died April 4, 1997. He was 18 years old and weighed 70 pounds.

Reed didn’t learn about the long-standing concerns raised about Bayshore High School until 2005, when she saw it on a news broadcast while celebrating her daughter’s 21st birthday at Hard Rock Cafe. She would also learn that at least one more alumnus died from the same rare bone cancer that claimed Rick’s life.

Rick only went to Bayshore for his freshman year, transferring to Gulfcoast Marine Institute, then an alternative school in Bradenton. But his mom still believes Bayshore could be connected to his illness.

“When that came up, that set off my radar,” she said. She called the station, which put her in contact with Cheryl Jozsa, class of 1981.

“I think it’s an honor of being the voice of people who aren’t here anymore or are too sick,” Jozsa said.

She has been entrusted with medical documents and the stories of hundreds who just want answers. Each time she recalls someone’s particular story, she begins to cry.

“I’m not trying to lay blame on anybody,” she said. “I just don’t understand why they (the county and school board) won’t try to help.”

On March 2, Jozsa raised her concerns at a Manatee County Commission meeting, and the topic was once again thrust into the spotlight. School board chairman Charlie Kennedy suggested the school district should begin reaching out to alumni to notify them they might be at greater risk for cancer.

Pollution from another site?

David Woodhouse, a retired hydrogeologist who has spoken at school board and county commission meetings, doesn’t believe a leaking underground storage tank could have contaminated the ground water he said students were drinking. He said benzene, the organic chemical compound in diesel fuel, is a “floater” and does not sink far below the surface, and it only causes certain types of cancer.

“We have to get that which is just below the ground down into a well. Benzene doesn’t want to sink, it just sits on top of the water table. We have to get from point A to point B,” Woodhouse said. “You can explain leukemia by saying they ingested water from leaking tanks. But you can’t attach that theory to the brain, the liver, the kidney. That doesn’t happen.”

Woodhouse believes a polluted area about a mile north of the school contaminated the groundwater at Bayshore. The site, known as Riverside Products, is classified as a Superfund site — the EPA’s most extreme designation for polluters. But it is listed as a non-NPL, meaning it is not on the National Priorities List, which determines which sites warrant further investigation.

There are eight others like it in Manatee County, according to the EPA, including the Lockheed Martin property in Tallevast, where the community linked the cause of their illnesses to American Beryllium Company’s pollution. The Department of Environmental Protection found chlorinated solvents had leaked into the aquifer from the facility.

Complaints are nothing new

Teachers and parents complained for years that Bayshore’s old building was making them and their children sick.

School district officials have three large cardboard boxes filled with documentation of asbestos testing, radon testing, water testing, soil testing, mold assessments and more.

Some alumni recalled a funny smell that lingered in the halls, and a dozen teachers formally complained about headaches, sore throats and newly developed asthma, which was linked to poor circulation and an abundance of mold.

“I never had asthma — until I started teaching here,” one 1995 complaint states.

When asked when their symptoms would start or get worse, one responded, “When I walk in the door.”

A letter from a parent or guardian in 1995 says two students missed school because “they have been getting sick from all the mold that’s at Bayshore High. They get all stuffed up, watery eyes, very bad headaches and sore throats,” the letter states. “I don’t know what to do anymore.”

Local leaders may look for answers

Rick Speed watches over his mother from the living room wall. This year marks 20 years since he died.

She still carries the guilt of her son’s cancer.

“I want an answer, too, ’cause right now I’m blaming myself for sending Ricky to that school,” Liz Reed said. “Even though I didn’t know about it, it’s just a mother’s thing.”

County commissioners will hear about Bayshore on Tuesday. A joint meeting between commissioners and the school board has yet to be planned.

Reed hopes the local leaders can prove Bayshore was not a health risk.

“I would love for them to say — and I mean guarantee — that there’s nothing going on, because then I don’t have to worry about the other kids that go there,” Reed said.

Boyce Rensberger, the former director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote often about cancer clusters during his years as a science writer for the Washington Post. He has advice as board members and county commissioners delve into investigating claims of a cancer cluster.

“Be very skeptical,” Rensberger said. “The vast majority turn out to be nothing.”

Jozsa has a strong response to that skepticism.

“We’re going to have skeptics all day long, but I don’t have time for them,” Jozsa said. “If someone were in our shoes, they’d be believers.”

Ryan McKinnon: 941-745-7027, @JRMcKinnon

Hannah Morse: 941-745-7055, @mannahhorse

What makes a Cancer Cluster, according to the CDC:

  • A higher number of cancer cases exist than would be expected.
  • The cancer cases are all of the same type.
  • The cases are limited to a specific population.
  • That population is in a defined geographic area.
  • The cases all occur within a clearly defined time period.