Albion seeks additional study if there is high incidence of cancer among elementary school staff

Photos by Tom Rivers: Angie Wolfe, a kindergarten teacher who has worked at the Ronald L. Sodoma School the past 19 years, addresses the Albion Board of Education on Monday. Wolfe was diagnosed with breast cancer on March 20, 2018. She asked the board to have outside experts look at what she believes is a high rate of cancer and serious illnesses among staff and teachers at the school building.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 8 January 2019 at 7:45 am

ALBION – The Albion Teachers Association is asking the Albion Board of Education for a deeper investigation into why there have been so many incidents of cancer and serious illness among elementary teachers and staff.

Angie Wolfe, a kindergarten teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer in March, said she is one of 22 teachers or staff who have been diagnosed with breast cancer at the elementary school fairly recently. Wolfe has worked in the school for 19 years.

She is one of nine teachers or staff diagnosed in the past five years. In the past 10 years, it’s 16 employees at the school. Going back more than 10 years, it’s 22 people diagnosed with breast cancer at the elementary school. Other employees have had other serious illnesses. The middle and high schools have far fewer cases of serious illness among staff and teachers, she said.

A staff member at the elementary school who recently successfully battled breast cancer attended the Board of Education meeting on Monday.

She told the Board of Education the “alarming number” of people with serious health issues warrants a deeper investigation. She and other members of the Albion Teachers Association made a map showing where in the building the staff and teachers worked who became seriously ill. Wolfe said “the vast majority” tended to be in the original school building from the 1950s – wings A and G, the cafeteria and the district office.

Chris Keller, the Teachers Association president, said teachers are concerned   about the safety of the building.

“The number of serious illnesses makes it imperative that we take a closer look,” he told the Board of Education on Monday.

Last month the district presented a report from WorkFit Medical for its assessment of the incidents of cancer and serious illness among elementary teachers and staff. WorkFit provides medical services to the school district and other districts and businesses in Western New York.

In a Nov. 27 letter to Michael Bonnewell, the Albion school superintendent, WorkFit officials say the rate of breast cancer occurrence at the elementary school is actually lower than the national average.

At Albion Elementary it’s one in 19 women compared to the national average of one out of eight women getting breast cancer during their lifetime, according to the letter from C. Jay Ellie, MD, general director of WorkFit Medical, and Heather Hosking, director of occupational and comprehensive school health for WorkFit Medical.

That report from WorkFit didn’t satisfy the Teachers Association. School officials learned last week the Teachers Association wanted further study of the issue.

The board and school administration in the past week have reached out to outside experts – its insurance company, the Orleans County Health Department, the NYS Department of Health, and Cornell’s University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Workplace Health and Safety Program.

Margy Brown, the BOE president, said the district will await direction from those groups. WorkFit advised the district that “environmental factors” in a building don’t cause breast cancer.

Wolfe urged the district to have an outside independent agency look at air and water quality and as well as environmental factors in the building.

“Please believe we want nothing more than the safety of our buildings for our students and for you,” Brown said at the meeting, which was attended by many elementary teachers and staff, some wearing T-shirts with the names of employees who have fought cancer.

The Teachers Association presented a packet with some new information to the Board and administration on Monday. Brown said they will review that information and respond to the Teachers Association soon, likely within a week.

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