Blue water review finds ‘no causal link’ between cancers and chemical contamination
An independent “blue water” review into chemical contamination at the shared Buchanan and St Ambrose High School site has deemed the campuses are safe and recommended they be reopened.
The review found “the schools and site are safe” and concluded “there is no causal link between arsenic and the bladder cancer cases” at the site.
“We conclude that there is no causal link between the well-documented hazards causing such public concern and any ill-health of those who work or who are taught on this site,” the report said. “In our view, there is no causal link between arsenic and the bladder cancer cases at Buchanan High school.”
The Scottish Government ordered the review in June, after it emerged four current and former teachers had been diagnosed with cancer, and concerns were raised about possible chemical contamination after blue water was seen coming from school taps.
The school campus was built on a site used as landfill for industrial waste, including lead and arsenic, between 1945 and 1972.
The review team held meetings in Coatbridge with 50 parents, staff, unions and students from the two schools. The review report said class numbers had declined “rapidly” at St Ambrose “as the situation ran on”, and Buchanan was closed for summer nine days early.
Water, soil and air samples from the former landfill were assessed, along with the methane membrane, which had been installed as a safety measure when the campus was built.
The review found the blue water was caused by copper and was not of concern, and the methane membrane under the school building was “installed correctly and no landfill related gases were detected at that time and now”.
“The blue water found in the past is caused by copper which is not a significant health risk. Copper does not cause cancer,” the report said. “There is no reason not to open the schools based on the blue water issue. However, the evidence we have seen leads us to recommend certain further precautionary testing of the water over the period ahead by Scottish Water.”
It recommended Scottish Water undertake further water sampling “to confirm that the water supply is and remains compliant with drinking water quality standards” and said the main water pipe should be replaced within 14 days, before students and staff return to school.
Elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were found in one sample pit at the edge of the school. The review recommended North Lanarkshire Council complete a “full and independently verified removal of the chemical as soon as possible”.
The review was critical of the council, saying it did not address staff concerns about the drinking water “seriously or quickly enough”, and the problems should have been “escalated earlier”.
“North Lanarkshire Council failed in our view to recognise early enough that, face-to-face meetings could have helped identify those who are most concerned and provide them with answers to their questions,” the report said.
“North Lanarkshire Council were both too slow and too defensive in their response, especially on blue water, allowing foreseeable problems of confidence to arise.”
The review team also accused NHS Lanarkshire of failing “to maintain and secure public confidence in the advice to GPs for heavy metal testing.”
“We heard very consistently about perceptions that GPs had been ordered not to test patients. This was not so, based on what was published by them, but such misperceptions were not successfully countered. Accordingly, we question whether NHS Lanarkshire could have been more proactive to reassure parents.”
A site recovery group should be created, comprised of community leaders and school site users, “to provide an open and transparent channel for any concerns to be raised” over the wellbeing of those on campus, the review recommended.
Co-leader of the review Dr Margaret Hannah said the “principal finding is that the schools are safe, the site is safe and there is no link between the school and the reported health issues”.
“However, we have made recommendations for some work to be carried out in order to provide further public reassurance,” she said.
“Working together is key to restoring public confidence and we hope our findings will help all the communities in Coatbridge and beyond work towards common goals and in the best interests of the pupils and staff.”
Deputy First Minister John Swinney noted the review was critical of the council and NHS Lanarkshire, finding the bodies “did not handle this issue at all well”.
“They did not engage with parents sufficiently early or in an inclusive manner,” he said.
“The recommendations will ensure statutory bodies engage far more proactively with parents, staff and pupils to rebuild the trust and learn lessons from this for the future.”
Responding to the criticism, North Lanarkshire Council executive director for enterprise and communities Robert Steenson said: "The report also contains learning points for the council and we will reflect on these as we work through the detail of the report.”
He said council “fully accepts” the blue water issue could have been dealt with earlier, and: “We have already revised our reporting systems to ensure matters of concern are consistently and swiftly dealt with.”
Steenson said council had written to Scottish Water on Friday morning "to make the necessary arrangements and will publish the ongoing water test results”. He said all pipework had been replaced.