Emergency radiological testing at Colonia, NJ school after rare brain cancer concerns
WOODBRIDGE — A consultant will be testing the grounds at Colonia High School amid concerns that the school is linked to a high rate of rare brain cancers.
Federal and state agencies, meanwhile, are starting their own investigation.
Township Council approved the emergency contract with T&M Associates at Tuesday night's meeting. Altogether, it will cost $221,350.
Council's resolution states T&M environmentalists will conduct "Radiological Assessments" at CHS. This involves leaving radon canisters at the school for 14 days. These canisters do not pose a risk to students and only test radon levels in the air.
Additionally, T&M will work with Cabrera Services Inc., a company that specializes in radiological and environmental remediation.
They will "utilize state-of-the-art technology to acquire real-time radiation measurements throughout the interior and exterior of the building in conjunction with an intensive survey that will encompass all 28 acres that constitute the property of Colonia High School."
Mayor John McCormac told New Jersey 101.5 the testing is set to begin on the morning of Saturday, April 9.
"I'll be confident with what our consultants come up with and we'll share that with the state," McCormac said. "They will decide what they want to do. They may do other testing. They may just rely on what we give them. And together we'll figure out the next course of action."
The mayor said this means it will take some time for the results to come in. However, the testing marks a major development for what was once a single man's mission to help his family and community.
The number of possibly related tumors has now grown to more than 90 people, according to Lupiano.
Lupiano, his wife Michele, and his sister Angela DeCillis all graduated from Colonia High School. And all three developed rare forms of brain cancers.
Since Angela's death in February, Lupiano has dedicated himself to finding a link between the school and rare brain cancers. His background in environmental work, including as an EPA emergency responder handling radioactive material, has given him greater insight into the situation.
Lupiano and McCormac became quick partners after concerned residents reached out to the mayor's office.
Lupiano told New Jersey 101.5 he's pleased with what he called "the first big step into providing answers."
"But, I am also torn between hoping we find nothing, meaning the problem no longer exists, and also wanting to find something, meaning we can prevent any more having to suffer," Lupiano said.
"I truly want to find a link to our health issues, but I also know what the ramifications of a finding are. If we detect an environmental hazard, it means the problem still exists, and potentially countless more may have been exposed. For the sake of our children, I pray that this is not the case."
Environmental agencies involved
Together, Lupiano and McCormac have been in contact with numerous high-level agencies.
"There is a lot of bureaucracy at the federal and state level, but we're dealing with that," McCormac said. "We had a call two days ago with everybody and it seemed to go well."
The call included the CDC, the EPA, the state Department of Health, the state Department of Environmental Protection, Governor Phil Murphy's office, the Woodbridge Board of Education, and the consultants. U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J 6th District, who is known for his environmental advocacy, led the call.
An EPA Region 2 office spokesman confirmed they are aware of the situation.
"EPA has received information about the community's concerns related to Colonia High School," Region 2 spokesperson Elías Rodríguez said. "We take those concerns seriously and will communicate with both the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the New Jersey Department of Health as they investigate the matter."
State agencies are also working with the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, according to a joint statement from the state DOH and DEP provided by DEP spokesperson Caryn Shinske.
"Our agencies are aware of the concerns raised by local residents, particularly as they relate to Colonia High School, and are partnering with Mayor McCormac and Woodbridge Township to better understand the issue and determine whether any relevant environmental exposure concerns are present at the site. The Departments stand ready to assist Woodbridge in reviewing any environmental data it collects to determine appropriate next steps."
The full statement is available at the end of this article.
News spreads about Colonia High School
Local officials are prioritizing the investigation. Lupiano's questions have gained national coverage and some Woodbridge residents are worried.
"People are concerned, naturally, with what seems to be a significant number of cases of brain-related cancers and tumors from people who have been to the school," McCormac said.
McCormac and Woodbridge schools Superintendent Joseph Massimino released a joint statement last week.
"We have requested that the agencies move quickly to conduct any necessary research and verification of data so we can efficiently coordinate and facilitate any actions that will assist in the evaluation of the information and implementation of any environmental impact studies," they said.
Woodbridge Township has created a section on its website dedicated to Colonia High School Health Information. Among the available links are reports regarding a radioactive rock found at the school in 1997.
While Lupiano believes ionizing radiation may be responsible for the possible cancer cluster, it's unlikely that the rock is related.
Radiation physicist William Csaszar with the state DEP's Bureau of Environmental Radiation found the rock "posed no health threat to any students or faculty," according to a report.
"Mr. Csaszar gave the analogy that one would get more radiation from sun bathing than from being near the rock," the report said.
The full joint statement from the state DEP and DOH is below.
"Ensuring the continued protection of public health is a core principle of both the New Jersey Department of Health and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Our agencies are aware of the concerns raised by local residents, particularly as they relate to Colonia High School, and are partnering with Mayor McCormac and Woodbridge Township to better understand the issue and determine whether any relevant environmental exposure concerns are present at the site. The Departments stand ready to assist Woodbridge in reviewing any environmental data it collects to determine appropriate next steps."
The Department of Health will work with the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to provide an assessment of the potential health effects. If there are any potential environmental exposure pathways identified and a need for further environmental sampling, the state Health Department will work cooperatively with ATSDR to conduct a public health assessment and evaluate the potential for health effects. We thank Mayor McCormac and the local residents for raising these concerns and we ask for patience as we pursue the science to try to identify answers."