THE headteacher of a Coatbridge school which was built on a former landfill site has insisted her place of work is safe and has not caused a spate of bladder cancer cases.

In an interview, Ellen Douglas, whose St Ambrose High school has faced a parental revolt amid fears about blue drinking water, urged parents to listen to experts who refute any cancer link.

She also said it had been “unjust” that an experienced doctor was branded a liar at a public meeting after he explained the facts of the case.

Douglas was backed up by Andrew McPherson, head of regulatory services and waste solutions at North Lanarkshire Council, who said he agreed that some of the media stories on the blue water row amounted to “fake news”.

READ MORE: Pupils at 'blue water' Buchanan High 'should be tested for toxins' 

The safety of two Coatbridge schools – Buchanan High and St Ambrose – on the same site has become a national political controversy over the last few months.

The newbuild is located on land which had previously been used for burying domestic and industrial waste. Ahead of construction, remediation work was carried out and the grounds were certified as being safe.

However, concerns were flagged up that the drinking water on the campus had turned blue. It has since been reported that four serving and retired teachers at Buchanan High have bladder cancer.

A parent has also demanded answers after her child, a pupil at Buchanan, lost his sight.

The council, which is responsible for the schools, tried to address the fears by putting out information which they said explained that the blue tinge was caused by copper, which is not carcinogenic. A fact sheet stated: “Copper in drinking water, or blue water as it has been called, is not particularly uncommon in new buildings. It is caused by corrosion in copper pipes.”

The local authority has replaced all but one of the copper pipes and the blue water has disappeared, but the row has rumbled on.

Hundreds of pupils have been kept off school by their parents and some teachers at Buchanan, who are represented by the NASUWT trade union, have gone on strike. Another group of St Ambrose teachers will take industrial action next week.

Education Secretary John Swinney, who said the water is safe, announced an independent review to help “address concerns”, and Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson raised the row at First Minister’s Questions this week.

However, the escalation has frustrated senior figures on the frontline who believe the evidence ruling out a link between the blue water and cancer is robust.

Douglas, who is the longstanding head of St Ambrose, told this newspaper: “I’m a geographer to trade and I’m a headteacher in terms of occupation. I am very respectful, and listen carefully, to people who know more than me. I therefore respect that there are experts who can articulate, examine [and] investigate much more than I can.

READ MORE: Headteacher: 'blue water' school is safe and has not caused cancer 

“I do know about the occurrence of blue water in public buildings, in big buildings ... I do know that occurs. So the idea that blue water was present in the building is something that makes sense to me.”

Asked if she agreed with the council that it was a “myth” to link the blue water to the site of the school, she said: “I am quite clear about that.”

She added: “Based on what I understand, and has been shared with me over time from the experts, then it’s my belief that this school is not causing cancer.”

On how she believed the “myth” had developed, she replied: “People will often look for explanations and depending on how deeply we look for it we can very often come up with answers that don’t quite join together.”

Douglas said she fully understood the concerns of parents and has empathy for the people who have cancer. However, she said that the dates do not add up.

“I understand that the latency period of bladder cancer is something in excess of 10 years. And given that this campus opened in November 2012, the chronology tells me that that is the case.

“I can’t imagine for a minute that people in public health would lie about latency periods, since that will obviously be in the public domain.”

Although members of the NASUWT trade union are taking strike action, teachers in the much larger EIS union are not. Douglas said: “I think it is reassuring that the EIS is not balloting for industrial action because I have a belief that they have taken cognisance of all of the information that is at their disposal.”

At a stormy public meeting earlier this month, Dr David Cromie of NHS Lanarkshire tried to reassure parents but was met with cries of “liar”.

Douglas said: “I felt sorry for Dr Cromie. Sad that it was happening in St Ambrose High school. I felt it was unjust because he came along to present his clear understanding of the situation.”

Asked whether she believes there is an anti-expert sentiment in society, she said: “Yes, we can see that thread running through so many aspects of the society that we are part of now.”

She continued: “It is gut-wrenching to watch a community wounded in the way that this community’s been wounded.”

Calls have been made for pupils to be health tested and some local politicians, who do not have a medical background, have demanded that the schools close while the independent review is under way.

Douglas said: “The impact of closure in the remaining days is a loss in education. Young people are entitled to their education and they are entitled to it in its broadest sense. Our doors are open and we teaching children.”

At one point in the interview, she used the latin phrase “festina lente”, which means “make haste slowly”.

She explained: “Don’t lose what your treasures are. And this place is a treasure.”

Cromie, a consultant in public health medicine at NHS Lanarkshire, which has stated that there is no link between the school site and the cancer cases, also spoke to The Herald on Sunday.

The doctor, who has worked at the regional board for nearly 30 years, said that copper is not classified as carcinogenic.

He added: “The blue water was the internal aspect of the pipe, rather than something coming from outside through the pipe.”

On the case involving the pupil who had lost his sight, Cromie said he is constrained by confidentiality.

But he said: “We do know about the case and our assessment is that there is no risk to people acquiring illness from arsenic at that school.”

He is sceptical about calls to test pupils: “What would you be testing for? What would be the implications of that testing?

“Secondly, if you did test, that would in a sense be unethical because you would be testing people without a clear purpose.”

Dr Cromie said the NHS carried out a literature review of the latency period for bladder cancer which, while not an “exact science”, was fairly clear: “The latency tends to range from about 15 to 40 years.”

He added: “We would have no hesitancy to shut a school, or shut a food premises, or shut other things that we thought were continuing to pose a risk to people’s health. And we have done that numerous times in the past.

“Our judgment is that the school is safe to operate and for people to be there.”

McPherson, who has worked for the council since the 1990s and has a background in environmental health, echoed these sentiments.

Asked how satisfied he was that the blue water posed no cancer risk, he said he was “100% satisfied, on a number of fronts”.

He said: “I am more than happy with the health of the water supply within the school and I’m 100% certain that there’s no relationship between that and any cancer case.”

McPherson said some of the claims had been “sensationalised” and “alarmist”, adding that a number of factors had been “conflated”. 

He also criticised the reaction to Cromie at the public meeting: “It’s hugely disappointing. It seems to be a self-perpetuating problem that it doesn’t matter what evidence is put in front of people at the moment, it’s not fitting within their argument and therefore they are choosing to dismiss it.”

McPherson continued: “I certainly don’t think the media have helped. Certainly it would appear that this story has escalated with the assistance of the media, but in the same breath it is up to the council to use the media to get the real story across.”

Asked whether he believes some of the blue water cancer stories had been fake news, he said: “I think that would be a fairly accurate description of some of the stuff that has been reported.”

McPherson, in common with Cromie, said his job is to protect people: “My main concern is the protection of public health. That is what I put first. The protection of the council is secondary to that.

“I sometimes have to take action which costs the council money. I’ve done that in the past and I will continue to do that. And this case is no different.”