NBC 10 I-Team: North Providence parents speak out about cancer concerns

Parents and teachers packed a school committee meeting in North Providence on Wednesday evening, concerned with what they say is a lack of communication about ongoing health issues, including elevated levels of radon in several schools. (WJAR)

Parents and teachers packed a school committee meeting in North Providence on Wednesday evening, concerned with what they say is a lack of communication about ongoing health issues, including elevated levels of radon in several schools.

"How did I find out about the results? Channel 10 News. That's how I found out,” said parent Bob Clayton, whose son attended Whelan Elementary, one of the schools where radon was found.

As NBC 10 first reported, more than 20 teachers and staff who worked in several North Providence schools have all been diagnosed with cancer. They question whether the aging school buildings they worked inside could have played a role in their illnesses.

Radon is a radioactive gas that occurs naturally in Rhode Island and surrounding areas, but it can cause cancer. Clayton, along with other parents at the meeting, said they had no idea radon had been found at levels above what the EPA recommends, until they saw the story on NBC 10.

NBC 10 I-Team digital reporter Patricia Resende spent weeks digging through records and learned that elevated radon levels were found at three schools, including Whelan Elementary, Olney Elementary and North Providence High School.

"The EPA says there is no acceptable level of radon,” Clayton told the School Committee. “There's no acceptable level."

Clayton said he made more than 15 phone calls during the past week, looking for answers about the radon tests. But he said no one he called had a clear explanation, prompting him to ask for better communication from the school district.

“If we had communicated properly, we probably wouldn't be here tonight,” he said. "I don't recall anyone reaching out to the parents of Whelan to say, 'Hey, you've got radon in your son's class.'"

The Rhode Island Department of Health is investigating whether the cancer rate in North Providence is above normal. Health Department researchers said the radon tests were short-term, and there’s no reason to believe children or adults are at risk at this point.

North Providence is in the process of retesting radon levels at all schools in the town, and also checking schools for lead, the School Department told NBC 10.

The NBC 10 I-Team started investigating after more than 20 North Providence teachers and staff came forward, saying they’ve all been diagnosed with cancer in recent years, including 15 cases of breast cancer.

"In December of 2015, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I am currently a survivor of that disease, and so far, so good,” Deb Mesolella, a retired special education teacher, told the School Committee.

Mesolella said once she learned she was one of many teachers fighting cancer, she simply couldn’t stay silent.

"That hit me like a brick wall,” she said. "I never connected anyone else to what happened to me. Then as we spoke and got to talking, we felt that collectively as a group, we needed to bring attention to this matter."

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