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Investigators: Michigan school improperly stored chemicals

April 1, 2019
A look at the back of Walled Lake Central High School in Commerce Township, Michigan on Thursday, March 21, 2019. Michigan health officials found that a suburban Detroit high school had been improperly storing chemicals in its science labs during an investigation that was spurred by concerns about a high number of cancer diagnoses among staff. (Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press via AP)
A look at the back of Walled Lake Central High School in Commerce Township, Michigan on Thursday, March 21, 2019. Michigan health officials found that a suburban Detroit high school had been improperly storing chemicals in its science labs during an investigation that was spurred by concerns about a high number of cancer diagnoses among staff. (Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press via AP)

WALLED LAKE, Mich. (AP) — Michigan health officials found improperly stored chemicals in science labs at a suburban Detroit high school during an investigation spurred by concerns about a high number of cancer diagnoses among staff.

At least one medical expert told the Detroit Free Press that it’s unlikely the cancer cases at the Walled Lake school district are linked to the chemicals, saying cancer comes in many forms and often takes years to develop.

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the district $2,100 last year and ordered it to address the chemical storage issues at its Central High School. The district notified parents about the problem last week.

State health officials received complaints about the high number of cancer cases among staff in 2017, including one that said 10 staff members had been diagnosed with cancer in the past eight years. District spokeswoman Judy Evola said there was no evidence of high rates of cancer cases among students.

Data compiled by the district indicated staffers were affected by six different forms of cancer, including breast and thyroid cancer.

District official William Chatfield said some teachers were diagnosed with cancer shortly after joining the school and at least one had a pre-existing condition.

He called the correlation between chemical storage and faculty sickness “random at best.”

Dr. Kenneth Rosenman, chief of Michigan State University’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, agreed, saying it’s likely that many schools are improperly storing chemicals and cancer often takes years to develop.

“I think the common thing that people forget is that cancer is 150 different diseases and we lump them all together,” he said. “About 40% of us get cancer in our lifetimes. You can’t lump them all together.”

Laura Abington is an epidemiologist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services who conducts cancer cluster reviews. A cancer cluster is a greater-than-expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area over a period of time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Abington said it’s rare to identify a true cancer cluster.

“A single chemical or an environmental contaminant is unlikely to cause many types of cancer,” Abington said.

She said a chemical or an environmental contaminate can be associated with a particular type of cancer of even a couple different types. But she said it’s unlikely that one contaminant could cause a variety of different types of cancer, such as the case at the school.

“There’s a lot of chance and coincidence stuff that happens with cancer rates, too,” Abington said.

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Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com

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