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Fresh concerns raised over schools on toxic landfill site

Public health expert questions review which gave controversial campus the all-clear.

By STV News

Published 04 Sep 2019.

By Russell Findlay

A public health expert has raised fresh concerns about a Scottish Government study which found no links between ill-health and schools built on a toxic landfill site.

Professor Andrew Watterson identified three alleged failings in the review ordered in response to concerns from teachers, parents and pupils at St Ambrose and Buchanan High schools in Coatbridge, Lanarkshire.

The Stirling University researcher told STV News the review, led by Dr Margaret Hannah, lacks transparency and does not provide complete reassurance.

His own report - to be published today - concludes: "However disappointing it is, the conclusion at the moment must be that not all the key questions about the site have been fully answered and not all the key evidence required has been collected and made available."

His intervention seems likely to renew concerns about the safety of the schools which have a combined roll of around 1300 pupils.

The main issue identified by Prof Watterson relates to four current and former teachers at the campus who were diagnosed with bladder cancer. The review found no link between their illness and the site.

He said the review team "relied heavily" on a 2002 study - but did not appear to consider subsequent research into landfill and bladder cancer nor fully explain how they came to their conclusion.

Prof Watterson told STV News: "If what you rely on is a literature review of a particular disease and a possible pollution threat from 2002, which is all that we've seen in the public domain, I think that is being selective.

"It may not be but until the information is put in the public domain, until we've got transparency that's been repeatedly called for, it's very difficult to make that assessment.

"The whole question of shorter latency periods for bladder cancer is simply ignored rather than noted and assessed, making the review look like cherry picking in several sections."

Professor Watterson's second concern relates to what substances were tested for at the site - previously used to bury metal industry and household waste.

He said: "The basic testing that went on in the school buildings was for carbon dioxide, not for a range of other chemicals that might possibly be in the building although they may not be necessarily related to the landfill.

"But because that testing wasn't done we aren't able to answer the question about what they're exposed to what could be the problem, or what couldn't be the problem, ruling things out as well as ruling them in."

His third concern is about the review's decision to not conduct medical tests for pupils who underwent private tests which found apparently high levels of substances including arsenic.

He said: "I think the wise step would have been for the NHS to do some testing and then they would either have been able to say there's no possibility that the readings that have been obtained not by the NHS indicate any health problems or there's something that we need to follow up.

"Again doing that testing early on would have allayed fears if there were no problems. But here we are, four months down the line, a number of parents still have concerns, still want testing."

Initial concerns were about 'blue water' at the £44m campus. Caused by copper pipes, the phenomenon is not considered to be harmful.

Parents were also concerned about waste beneath the schools, which opened in 2012. Some reported their children had become unwell with symptoms including headaches, fatigue and vomiting.

A public meeting in June failed to allay concerns; some teachers then went on strike and SNP former health secretary Alex Neil called for the schools to be vacated - prompting Deputy First Minister John Swinney to order the review.

On August 9, Dr Hannah presented her findings and said that she was so confident the campus was safe she would be comfortable sending her own children there.

Her report was also critical of North Lanarkshire Council, saying that 'mistrust built over many years'; ordered continued site testing and the creation of a 'site recovery group' involving staff and parents.

Prof Watterson, who engaged with the review team, said: "So in those three areas I made those suggestions. They haven't been acted on and I think there are areas where there is still significant uncertainty.

"So those three big areas that we've discussed we don't have all the information that we need. It's not been transparent in terms of putting information out in the public domain and there've been problems with how the messages have been communicated."

His report adds: "Without the necessary evidence base being available in these three critical areas of concern, it is difficult to see how the review report can reassure staff and parents."

Prof Watterson's analysis has been welcomed by some parents, who feel that the independent review was not as thorough as it could have been.

Maria Hanley, who removed her son from St Ambrose and sent him to another school, said: "It's actually a relief that we've got someone like Professor Andrew Watterson, who we've trusted from day one, to actually speak for us the parents who had so many unanswered questions.

"It ruined our summer all of this. I had a lot of sleepless nights because I didn't know what was best to do for my son.

"I applaud Professor Watterson and what he's done today because he's given me a voice and he's raised a lot of the same concerns I had when I read the review."

The Scottish Government said: "The independent review considered a wide range of evidence, including environmental and clinical data, and commissioned new soil, water and air tests.

"The report provides reassurance that there are no links between ill-health and the campus. The recommendations will ensure statutory bodies engage far more proactively with parents, staff and pupils to rebuild the trust and learn lessons from this for the future.

"A key recommendation is the establishment of a site recovery group, North Lanarkshire Council has now appointed its chair and scientific advisor and the group will meet next week to start its work."

North Lanarkshire Council said it "welcomes the independent review, which reinforces the conclusions reached by experts in public health and pollution that the schools are safe, the campus is safe and there is no link to reported illness".

They added: "Our focus is on implementing the recommendations of the review and working closely with pupils, parents and staff at these outstanding, safe schools."

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