CANCER-CAUSING chemicals have been found in the grounds of a school campus at the centre of a public health row and should be removed “as soon as possible”, according to an expert review.

The report said “higher than expected” levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), industrial compounds linked to liver, stomach and thyroid cancers, were found during soil sampling on the site of Buchanan High and St Ambrose High in Coatbridge, Lanarkshire.

It was detected in only one out of 50 test-pits, on the outskirts of the site, and the area is now being fenced off just days before pupils are due to return.

The report recommends remedial works should be undertaken to eliminate the PCBs “on a strictly precautionary basis”.

Dr Margaret Hannah, the independent public health consultant who led the review, stressed staff and pupils were not at risk.

She said: “They are not a danger because the soil is covered over by grass. You’ve got to be able to be in contact with this chemical for it to be of any risk.

“You also need to be getting repeated exposure to it over a period of time for it to become a risk in terms of long-term health impact.

“Nonetheless, as a precautionary measure I still felt that it was reasonable to advise remedial action is taken on that area.”

Dr Hannah added: “Our principal finding is the school is safe, the site is safe, and there is no link between the school and the reported health issues.”

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It comes after some parents said they would not send their children back to the schools after the holidays, and a threat of strike action from August 12 by members of the NASUWT teaching union.

The review was commissioned by the Scottish Government amid reports of a mysterious bladder cancer cluster among current and former teachers, and claims that a young boy at Buchanan High, an additional support needs school, had “gone blind” and later tested positive for high levels of arsenic.

The schools were built on a brownfield site once used to dispose of sewage, domestic refuse and industrial landfill, leading to fears over possible contamination of the water supply, soil and air.

The report notes staff first complained about blue water running from some taps in October 2013 – a year after the new schools opened – but that their concerns “were not addressed seriously or quickly enough by North Lanarkshire Council”.

The discolouration was caused by copper leaching from the pipes, which were eventually fully replaced in 2018, but the report makes clear that while drinking copper-contaminated water can cause vomiting the metal “is not carcinogenic”.

Tests for arsenic, which is linked to bladder cancer, found it was at low levels in soil samples and “within safety limits” in the water supply.

The report states: "Levels of arsenic were reported low in all [water] samples where it was tested and regarded within safe limits. Arsenic cannot be regarded as a health risk from the water supply in the school."

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Contrary to reports that four teachers at the school had fallen ill with bladder cancer, the review found only three cases.

All three were diagnosed between 2015 and 2018, but The Herald understands each involved older males who were current or former smokers – all risk factors for the disease, which is the eighth most common form of cancer among men in Scotland.

In addition, two other teachers had been diagnosed with different types of cancer since the school opened.

However, Dr Hannah, a former director of public health at NHS Fife who is now retired, said there was no evidence of any causal link.

“This cancer ‘cluster’ is more likely to be down to chance than anything else,” she said.

“Arsenic only causes bladder cancer after many years of exposure at relatively high levels. What we found here was that there was no abnormally elevated levels of arsenic either in the water or the soil.

"Only a fraction of cases of bladder cancer are caused by chemicals. The vast majority get it because of age or smoking.

“Landfill sites also have no connection with bladder cancer. Even if you choose the most hazardous of landfill sites, there is still no risk.”

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Two pupils also had one-off positive tests for arsenic in their urine. One of the children – 13-year-old Tommi Morgan, a first-year pupil with autism at Buchanan High – had lost his sight after suddenly developing an ulcer on his cornea in October.

The second pupil had problems unrelated to vision.

However, the review states there is “nothing to suggest the children tested positive for arsenic as a consequence of attending school”, and noted that elevated arsenic can be caused by eating rice, certain vegetables and seafood.

It added: “Sight loss is a rare complication of prolonged or repeated arsenic exposure over many years and could not explain these symptoms in a first year pupil who has had a few weeks of possible exposure to a possible source at a new school.”

It added there is “an alternative clinical explanation for the blindness”, but did not reveal what this is.

The review also noted absence rates for staff and pupils were below average for Lanarkshire.

Air quality testing did not identify any contaminants such as methane or other gases escaping from the former landfill site.

Dr Hannah said she hopes staff and parents would be reassured by the findings.

She said: “They need to be convinced for themselves, but I would be convinced on the basis of what I’ve seen to send my own children to the school.”

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Chris Keates, acting general secretary of the NASUWT, said it had passed the report to its own experts for guidance.

“Once we have received their comments, we can then make a decision about the return to work of NASUWT members,” he said.

The council said it would implement the recommendations “swiftly”, with work to remove the PCBs to be carried out by the beginning of the new school term on Monday.