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NBC 10 I-Team: Teachers, staff fear cancer cluster in North Providence schools

Staff at McGuire and Whelan Elementary Schools in North Providence believe something in those school could have caused their cancer. (WJAR)

More than a dozen staff and teachers at two North Providence elementary schools have been diagnosed with some form of cancer over the last decade and they believe something in those schools caused their illnesses.

Staff at James L. McGuire and Dr. Joseph A. Whelan elementary schools – past and present – reached out to the NBC 10 I-Team for help to get answers before clues disappear with the city’s planned demolition of one of those schools this summer.

Multiple cancer cases

Twenty people who worked in one or both of those schools have been diagnosed with cancer, including one who has died, and many more have complained of other illnesses. Those who were diagnosed have fought various forms of the disease including breast, pancreatic and ovarian cancer as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Mary Lou Wiese, 63, was a North Providence teacher for 22 years before retiring in 2014. Wiese developed severe allergies requiring shots during allergy season, she said, due to mold and pollen at school. She said she did not need the shots during school vacations and no longer needed them after retirement.

Most of her teaching years were spent at Stephen Olney Elementary and McGuire, the two schools that are being demolished to make room for new schools.

It’s not the allergies that have Wiese asking questions. It’s cancer. Wiese was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. She and 14 others have been diagnosed with breast cancer, the I-Team has learned.

“I have no family history of any type of cancer, either on my mother’s side or my father’s side,” she said.

Wiese had a lumpectomy one month after her diagnosis.

“I went through four rounds of chemo,” Wiese said.

That didn’t stop her from doing what she loved. She began radiation that fall five days per week and completed 39 rounds, she told the NBC 10 I-Team, all while continuing to teach first grade at McGuire.

Moldy closets

Deb Mesolella, also retired, taught at Whelan Elementary for 23 years. She said that school had visible mold growing in some classrooms.

“I became prone to bronchitis and pneumonia and itchy, watery eyes,” she said.

Mesolella always attributed being sick to hazards of being around so many children, and never considered other environmental factors.

But others started to get sick too, like one teacher who needed to call 911.

“There was black mold-looking things growing in her closet,” Mesolella said of a teacher who suffered such a severe asthma attack, they needed to call for a rescue. “The school department looked into it and said it wasn’t mold and just painted over it.”

Still, Mesolella said she never linked her respiratory issues and the school. “You don’t make that connection right way,” she said. “You assume it’s from the kids.”

Then in December 2015 she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It took her close to six months to recover.

“It’s just been recently that I started to feel like myself,” Mesolella said. “As of right now, I am cancer-free, but my life for the next five years is from cat scan to cat scan.”

Asbestos abatement

While many staff and teachers complained about leaks and a musty smell, some were concerned with asbestos in North Providence schools, which were built in the 1950 and ‘60s.

The NBC 10 I-Team has learned that multiple classrooms at Stephen Olney and McGuire had asbestos, according to an asbestos abatement plan for McGuire and Stephen Olney.

An asbestos and mold report for Whelan was not made available by the administration before this story. NBC 10 will update that information when we receive it.

Asbestos can be found in the workplace, schools and in people’s homes. If products containing asbestos are disturbed, tiny fibers can become airborne, breathed in, and can lead to serious health problems, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.

One teacher who asked not to be identified said asbestos was found in the classroom under the tile floor.

“It was fine at first, then the carpet started right along the seam to tear,” the teacher said. “They did come in and test it and the recommendation was that they replace the floor.”

The teacher and students were moved to a different location temporarily. And once a carpet was placed on top of the tile, the teacher and students returned to the room.

She found a lump in her breast in late 2016 and had it tested.

“I was at school. It was right after lunch and I got the phone call and they told me,” she said in tears. “They ended up doing a biopsy and it was cancer.”

The teacher underwent chemo for 16 weeks and then had a double mastectomy.

Asked if she believed the schools were a contributor to the cancers, the teacher said, “Personally, yes. Just from being in one classroom after another, most of them unhealthy.”

“I always said if I ended up getting cancer it would be from the schools,” the teacher said. “That was always my thought because it was one person after another in the two schools I worked in.”

There is evidence that that asbestos causes mesothelioma and cancers of the lung, larynx and ovary and some evidence that asbestos exposure is linked to increased risks of cancers of the stomach, pharynx, and colorectum, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The Rhode Island Department of Health has legal authority over asbestos in schools, according to Barbara Morin, supervising environmental scientist at the health department.

“It’s only a danger if it becomes airborne or in a place where kids can poke at it, then it’s a problem,” she said of the asbestos. “Schools who still have asbestos in school need to have an asbestos maintenance plan and required to maintain it in a way that it is not going to become airborne and affect people.”

Morin said the two schools set for demolition had a management plan in place, but that “we hadn’t been out there in a few years,” she said.

Administration on board

Mesolella said the push to get answers is to help fellow teachers and children. "This is not a finger-pointing witch hunt expedition by any means," she said. "This is all about, if we can bring awareness to a potential problem and hazard, and something can be done about it, let's do it."

The plan is to demolish the two schools this summer, but North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi said he will hold off if it means helping the staff and teachers who have been stricken with cancer to find their answers.

“I lost my better half at 45 years old to this terrible disease,” he said. “It’s affected us personally in my life… I guarantee everyone, faculty, students, family that we’re going to do whatever we have to do to make sure that everyone feels secure and that their health issues have been addressed.”

Lombardi went on to say that if there’s any idea that the staff’s employment in one of those buildings may have caused their cancer or added to their illness, the city will find out and make sure that it is addressed.

“I also guarantee them that with the new buildings this will not be an issue.”

At the core

Those who reached out to the I-Team wondered if mold, asbestos or other hazards are at the core, or a contributing factor to their illness and took those questions to the administration and to the health department.

“We’d have to look at two factors -one would have to look at whether the number of cancers is an unexpected number for that group of people over that period of time,” Morin said. “And number two, whether or not there were environmental exposures that might explain those things.”

Will the number of diagnoses warrant the health department to test materials at the schools to determine a possible cancer cluster?

“It may potentially,” Morin said. “We are at the very beginning of this investigation and if we find out there really is an elevated level of cancer then it may make sense to do that.”

There are challenges, however.

“It’s complicated because even if we were able to do extensive sampling in the school right now, we wouldn’t know what it was like 20 years ago or when these people were exposed,” she said.

Cancer is not the normal outcome for mold exposure, but there are some molds that have some carcinogenic properties, according to Morin. “But (mold is) probably not going to be the smoking gun in this situation.”

In terms of asbestos, asbestos is a carcinogen and causes asbestosis and causes pulmonary cancers,” Morin said. “It’s not going to cause these other types of cancers these people are describing, so that’s probably not the cause.”

“It’s very likely we may never know the answer but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look.”

NBC 10 I-Team Investigator Katie Davis contributed to this report.

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