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Park High teachers meet with district about cancer concerns

Park High School teachers say they're concerned about cancer cases, although public health officials say there's no evidence of abnormality

COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. — A group of current and former teachers at Park High School met privately with the South Washington County Schools superintendent and public health officials on Thursday to discuss their cancer concerns in the building, even though the district and state health department claim there's no evidence of any cancer cluster.

Julie Miller-Hayes and Lois Lind, former Park staff members in special education, told KARE 11 that the district has been receptive to their concerns since they first emerged last fall (Miller-Hayes has breast cancer, while Lind is cancer-free after a previous diagnosis of breast and kidney cancers). A separate group of teacher's plan to file worker's compensation claims with the district, but have not done so yet.

Lists compiled by current and former teachers and obtained by KARE 11 show at least 35 current and former Park High teachers and staff members have been diagnosed with cancer since the 1990s, including nine in the last ten years. Of that group, only one was over 50 when diagnosed.

"The biggest thing is just wanting to know," Miller-Hayes said. "What's the correlation?"

Some teachers wonder whether it's related to construction, water sources or the Cottage Grove 3M plan that had been embroiled in a major environmental lawsuit. 

However, in a letter to staff last month, South Washington County Schools Superintendent Keith Jacobus said "all data shows that Park High School is safe and our tests for air quality, radon and lead in water show no areas of concern." The Minnesota Department of Health also "reviewed our data and concluded that our tests do not show any building-related factors that could contribute to different types of cancer. They also shared that the frequency of cancer at Park High School does not vary significantly from the general population where four or five people out of ten will be diagnosed with some type of cancer in their lifetime."

An MDH spokesperson told KARE 11 that the reports from Park do not meet the definition of a cancer cluster. 

However, the current and former teachers say they still want more answers. They expect to attend another meeting with the district at some point in the near future. Out of precaution, the district also plans to hire an environmental hygienist for additional testing. 

Here's the full letter from the superintendent to staff last month:

Dear Park High School Staff,

I understand there have been concerns regarding the number of staff at Park High School who have developed cancer in recent years.

Any time a loved one, friend or colleague experiences a life-changing event like cancer, it becomes deeply personal. I understand those worries and personally know how the disease impacts those we care about. 

When concerns came forward last fall, we reviewed our standard testing results. All data shows that Park High School is safe and our tests for air quality, radon and lead in water show no areas of concern. Please note that additional water tests are managed by the city of Cottage Grove. Our asbestos work that was conducted about 10 years ago was managed by a Minnesota Department of Health licensed abatement contractor. The work followed strict federal and state rules for air monitoring and was inspected and approved. 

We also consulted with the experts at the Minnesota Department of Health and its Minnesota Cancer Research System. They reviewed our data and concluded that our tests do not show any building-related factors that could contribute to different types of cancer. They also shared that the frequency of cancer at Park High School does not vary significantly from the general population where four or five people out of ten will be diagnosed with some type of cancer in their lifetime. One of the resources they provided is a link to the American Cancer Society, which helped me better understand the statistics around just how common cancer can be.

I understand that it's heartbreaking to see colleagues get sick. Through an abundance of caution, we are pursuing additional tests by hiring an environmental hygienist. This environmental expert will be able to evaluate staff concerns and current testing results, and then make recommendations for additional tests if needed. 

We will continue to act quickly to investigate any concerns you may have. I also hope that some of this information helps ease your concerns about the safety of the building. As always, you may find the testing results for each district building at sowashco.org.

Thank you for your continued commitment to our students and South Washington County Schools.

Sincerely,

Dr. Keith Jacobus

Superintendent

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