NBC 10 I-Team: RI Health Department finds no cancer cluster in North Providence

McGuire Elementary school is one of several North Providence school buildings that teachers believe may have been the cause of their illnesses. (WJAR)

After months of waiting, current and former teachers in North Providence schools got an update from the Rhode Island Department of Health addressing their concerns of a possible cancer cluster: the number of cancer cases is within the “expected range.”

"It is on the higher end of the expected range,” said Department of Health Spokesperson Joseph Wendelken.

RIDOH analyzed health data for 878 people who are either current of former employees of the North Providence School Department, breaking women and men into separate groups.

“For women, the number of cancer cases (60) was on the higher end of the expected range (between 36 and 63 cancer cases),” RIDOH said in a letter to teachers. “Among women, the number of breast cancer cases (29) was on the higher end of the expected range for that particular type of cancer.”

"What really made that total number for females be a little toward the higher end was the number of breast cancer cases,” Wendelken said.

The Health Department’s findings may come as little consolation for the dozens of current and former teachers -- and students -- who told the NBC 10 I-Team they are either battling cancer or have survived the disease. The cases involve primarily breast and ovarian cancers.

"This is not an open and shut situation,” Wendelken told NBC 10. “We're going to continue to monitor these numbers."

Wendelken also said RIDOH plans to analyze the entire Town of North Providence over the next few months, to see if the cancer rate in the community is higher than what would be expected.

"If at any point we see something that makes us think we need to take a closer look at a specific population, we're absolutely going to be sure to do that,” he said.

More than 20 current and former teachers and staff who worked in James L. McGuire and Dr. Joseph A. Whelan elementary schools in North Providence reached out to NBC 10 in 2017, concerned that their cancers could be linked to something inside the schools.

Mary Lou Wiese, 63, was a North Providence teacher for 22 years before retiring in 2014. Most of her teaching years were spent at Stephen Olney Elementary and McGuire. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 and had a lumpectomy.

“I have no family history of any type of cancer, either on my mother’s side or my father’s side,” Wiese said. “I went through four rounds of chemo.”

Deb Mesolella, also retired, taught at Whelan Elementary for 23 years and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015.

“It’s just been recently that I started to feel like myself,” Mesolella told NBC 10 in 2017. “As of right now, I am cancer-free, but my life for the next five years is from cat scan to cat scan.”

While the teachers were included in the Health Department’s analysis, former students were not, causing frustration for some. More than 50 former students who graduated from North Providence High School and have also recently been diagnosed with same types of cancers.

Robin Rongione Heim, a 1984 North Providence graduate who was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2015, told the I-Team she was disappointed she and other students weren’t part of the analysis.

"They said they don’t have enough people to look into everybody,” Rongione Heim said. “We want action,” she said. “We want this taken care of. It can’t go on any longer.”

No association with carcinogens sometimes found in school buildings, including radon and asbestos, was found, RIDOH said. One case of lung cancer, which is linked to radon, was found. But the total numbers of cases of lung cancer was lower than expected.

The investigation will continue, however, as RIDOH continues to “closely monitor cancer diagnoses among current and past employees,” the letter said.

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