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Toxic school? Cluster of student cancer cases leaves families fearful in Elmira, N.Y.
By Robert Davis
ELMIRA, N.Y. -- When Andy Patros was teaching his boy, Tom, to drive here on the parking lot behind Southside High School, father urged son not to put the family car into the murky pond on the other side of the school fence.
The pool of water on the old industrial site is infamously known across this town of 35,000 as ''the pond that never freezes.'' More than a century of mighty industrial use has left the land where the school was built a known hot zone. And the pond, according to lore, must be full of nasty crud to remain ice-free year-round.
''We used to joke about it,'' Andy Patros says. But nobody is laughing now.
Son Tom, 21, is one of many former or current Southside High students battling testicular cancer. Over the past three years, 13 Southside students have been diagnosed with cancer of various kinds. Since the school opened in 1979, at least 40 students have been stricken. That's out of about 4,200 students who have ever attended the school.
State health officials are analyzing the types of cancer cases to determine whether the rates are higher at Southside than in the general population. The state health department will hold a public meeting Aug. 23 to present its findings on the cancer and possible contamination of the site.
Meanwhile, some parents are wondering whether they should send their children back to classes next month or keep them home for fear the children will end up in the student support group known as the ''cancer club.'' The club was started by Josh Palmer, a 1998 Southside graduate who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease.
''I would never put them in danger,'' says Maggie Tobin, who must decide whether it is safe for 14-year-old Mara to enroll as a freshman and follow her brother's educational journey through Southside. Michael, who will be a junior, is fighting cancer. ''But at this point, we don't know where the danger is.''
State health officials are scrambling to determine whether the school, built atop ground polluted by a century of heavy industrial use, is to blame.
The air inside the school has been found to be safe; tests on the soil are still being analyzed. The pollution that is known to be there -- petroleum underground and carcinogens outside the school fence -- does not seem to be within the students' reach. And the site is not that dirty compared with countless others that have been scarred by industrial use. ''It does not appear to be anything out of the ordinary,'' says Claire Pospisil of the state health department.
And some of the cancer sufferers don't think the school is to blame. ''When you're trying to go through and prove that a school is causing it, I find that hard to believe,'' says Josh Palmer, now 20. ''My perception is that cancer involves genetics more than anything.'' Both of his grandfathers and two aunts had cancer. In his case, Josh says, ''there was no way of stopping it.''
There are about 92,000 people living in Chemung County; more than a third of them live in Elmira. The county has had a higher overall incidence of cancer than the state for 20 years, and the number of cases continues to rise. According to the New York State Cancer Registry, the cancer rate increased about 30% from 1976 to 1994 in Chemung County. But because the population is relatively small, a slight increase in the number of cases for any reason can make a big impact on the statistics.
A higher number of cancer cases at the school could be a statistical fluke. ''The problem with cancer is that it is fairly common,'' Pospisil says. ''It's more common than people think.''
But while tests so far have shown that the school is safe -- more detailed results are expected in coming weeks -- the public perception is hard to change.
''It's scary,'' says Carol Lawson, who lives near the school and nervously will send daughter Jenna, 15, to the first day of class Sept. 6. ''I would be devastated if that happened to us.''
The devastation has been felt by almost everyone in this town, where everyone seems to be connected in some way to everyone else.
Last month, the student cancer club lost one of its first members. Stephanie Schrock, who would have been a junior at Southside, died of sarcoma at age 15.
''It doesn't fight fair,'' says Michael Tobin, 16, who used to copy Stephanie's homework in school when their teacher wasn't looking. ''If cancer wants to win, it will win.''
Like many small towns across America, Elmira owes its economic survival through times of war, the Great Depression and town-crippling floods to its strong industrial backbone. But like those other towns, Elmira's success leaves land scarred by chemicals. The site where the town's newest high school sits has been a key part of Elmira's survival. From 1887, when steam engines were built there, until the 1970s, when typewriter maker Remington Rand left the area, the soil has soaked up everything from basic motor fuel to complex, cancer-causing chemicals.
Remington Rand has since become part of the computer company Unisys. The company says it is cooperating with state health officials to determine what needs to be done to clean up the site. ''Our environmental people are working with the state, and we will continue to do so,'' says Joe Barrett, a Unisys spokesman. ''We will do whatever is required.''
Environmental studies have found that the ''pond that never freezes'' has PCBs and benzopyrene, both considered probable causes of cancer. The dirt in the area contains PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), arsenic and beryllium. Groundwater has high levels of cadmium, chromium and lead.
Men who worked in the factories tell tales of dangerous chemicals spilling onto the ground by accident or design.
''It wasn't like it is today,'' says Paul Wood, who scavenged for precious metals as he buried waste from the Remington plant 50 years ago. ''We weren't that cautious.''
At a site along Seeley Creek, just south of where the school sits, Wood says he would ''bury 30-gallon drums, and six weeks later we'd dig down to bury something else, and the stuff in the drums would have eaten through the heavy metal. The barrel was gone, and it was just white gunk. We knew the stuff in those barrels was dangerous.''
Wood also has cancer.
''This was the bad area here where all of the hazardous stuff was used. From here all the way down to the end of the school,'' says Bill Fuller, standing on the school property and looking across the fence into the old Remington Rand plant, where he worked.
''I can't believe anybody would build a school here.''
Nearly impossible to prove
In retrospect, some of the people who built the school agree.
''I wish I could undo it,'' says Paul Zaccarine, 71, the school superintendent who oversaw the school's construction in the late 1970s. Now retired and living in Illinois, he is watching in horror as student after student gets cancer.
''It's really frightening,'' he says. ''That site was the least desirable as far as I was concerned, but because the Remington Rand people had given us the land, the board voted to go ahead and take it. We got it for a dollar or something.''
He says the long-term effects of the industrial waste were never considered. So far, nobody has found any evidence that an environmental study was done before school construction began in 1977.
''We just didn't know enough about all of that to have it be a concern,'' Zaccarine says. ''Every way we looked at it, we just felt it was an opportunity to get a brand-new school with a lot of the facilities we needed. If we had any indication that there was any contamination, we certainly would not have gone ahead with it.''
Local residents understand the decision. The town was recovering from the massive flood of 1972; the chance for a new school was too good to pass up.
''There were all kinds of grant money that came into this community with that school,'' says Art Kieffer, Chemung County historian. ''But all of the money that benefits the community doesn't count for one kid who contracts something.''
Nobody knows whether the cancer cases are connected to the school; health officials say they may never know. It's nearly impossible to trace the cause of a cancer precisely.
Cancer cells form in the human body regularly. But most bodies attack, kill and eliminate the unwanted cells silently and swiftly.
The reasons that some bodies become unwilling hosts to cancer are not fully understood, but the primary factors appear to be poor diet, smoking and a genetic predisposition. Toxic exposure is rarely blamed for cancer, in part because it is nearly impossible to prove beyond a scientific doubt.
''Even though there is a potential exposure route, we still might not be able to make the connection that somebody was exposed,'' says Mary Jane Peachy, regional hazardous waste remediation engineer for New York's Department of Environmental Conservation. She is investigating the Southside High School site, along with the state health department.
Some experts believe that even trying to link toxic exposure to a cluster of cancer cases is a waste of public money -- money that would be better spent on education and early screening.
''You have a greater return on your investment by preventing rather than trying to find out what caused it,'' says Elmira's Tom Kump, the county's environmental safety chief. ''We can't tell you what caused it. That's the reality.''
Then he shifts gears and speaks from his second role in the controversy: president of the school board. ''If I go by gut alone, the perception is we have something here,'' Kump says, adding that the district has a plan, if needed, to close Southside and teach all of the students in shifts at the other high school, on the north side of town.
''I can understand wanting to make a decision based on emotions, but you have to look at the science.''
If the school is found to be safe, Kump vows to keep investigating the area to determine whether there is a larger problem behind the rising cancer rates.
David Drew, who just lost his daughter, Stephanie Schrock, says the focus should be inside individual homes. He wonders whether the 1972 flood brought toxins that had been dumped around the south side out of the ground and into basements and yards.
''It could have stirred things up and maybe left things in the cellars of these homes,'' he says. ''You go down there and you can still see the silt left from the high water levels. There could be something, but I wouldn't say it's the high school.''
Like others who have been hit by cancer here, he is not looking to place blame. ''Life goes on for the rest of us,'' Drew says. ''Whether it's at the school or something in the atmosphere, I don't really know if they'll ever find the answer.''
He has his family screened regularly for cancer now.
As for students, most are ready to go back to class.
''I just don't drink the water,'' says Chris Lewis, 18, sitting outside the school on a summer afternoon, smoking a cigarette with his friends. ''I don't travel to the back of the school (where oxygen is being pumped into wells to rid the groundwater of old petroleum), and I don't go near that pond.
''That's just spooky.''
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