Glasgow & West Scotland

Coatbridge schools at centre of health scares 'are safe'

St Ambrose and Buchanan High schools Image copyright PA Media

An independent review into fears of contamination at a school campus in North Lanarkshire has said that the schools are safe.

The report said there was no link between Buchanan and St Ambrose high schools in Coatbridge and ill health.

It also said water samples passed drinking water standards and soil samples were "not of concern".

But the report did criticise North Lanarkshire Council for its "slow and defensive response" to the fears.

One parent told BBC Scotland that despite the findings, she was still not satisfied and would not be sending her children to St Ambrose School when it reopens next week.

Image caption Parents and pupils joined teachers on the picket line at Buchanan High School before the summer holidays

The campus was built on a landfill site that contained lead and arsenic.

As part of the review, water, soil and air samples from the former landfill site were assessed, along with the integrity of the methane membrane, which was installed as a safety measure during construction of the campus.

The review team found that one soil sample on the periphery of the site had elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) - a chemical subject to an international industrial ban.

They recommend that North Lanarkshire Council completes a full and independently verified removal of the chemical as soon as possible as a precaution.

Other findings included:

  • Parents and teachers were right to raise concerns
  • North Lanarkshire Council and NHS Lanarkshire's reactions were too slow and too defensive
  • There is no link between hazards at the site and ill health
  • The risk from hazardous contaminants in the soil is very low

Recommendations:

  • To address elevated levels of PCBs from a peripheral part of the site
  • Take more water samples in the coming months to address minor quality issues
  • Set up a site recovery group to enable information to be shared and concerns to be raised
  • Periodic testing results for the methane membrane to be made public as soon as possible

Public health consultant Dr Margaret Hannah, who co-led the review, said: "Many people were concerned about possible health risks from the previous use of the campus site. We listened carefully to the concerns of parents and teachers and worked with various experts in their field to determine the areas to test within the campus.

"Our 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."

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption Dr Margaret Hannah spoke to parents at the school

One of the group's recommendations is to create a site recovery group that will enable information to be shared and concerns to be raised.

"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," Dr Hannah said.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said the report - commissioned by the Scottish government - "provided reassurance" to parents, pupils and staff.

But he added: "The review also finds, however, that North Lanarkshire Council and NHS Lanarkshire did not handle this issue at all well. They did not engage with parents sufficiently early or in an inclusive manner.

"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."

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Media captionLisa McCormick says she has "no trust or faith" in North Lanarkshire Council

However, parent Lisa McCormick said she was "still not satisfied".

"I'm quite worried because of the short time the review team had," she said. "Did that actually compromise their findings because they had such a tight timescale to do it all in?

"I'm not convinced 100%. My kids will still not be going back to the school. That comes down to North Lanarkshire Council's behaviour. I've got no trust or faith in them whatsoever.

"That will never, ever, be repaired for me personally. We've got the information we need... I can walk away knowing that that school just isn't right for my children."

Blue water concerns

The EIS teaching union's general secretary Larry Flanagan said: "Whilst we accept the majority of the inquiry's conclusions, it is clear that the concerns at these schools should have been treated very differently by North Lanarkshire Council.

"Its mishandling of the situation on several occasions has increased stress and anxiety levels amongst teachers, parents and pupils.

"It is essential that the council now works positively to rebuild trust with all members of the school communities."

On Thursday, 36 members of the NASUWT teaching union threatened to go on strike from the first day of the new term unless they were satisfied the site posed no risks.

Acting general secretary Chris Keates said the report was now being examined but in the meantime the planned strike action remained in place for Monday. She said the union would keep the position under review.

Image caption NASUWT members went on strike over health concerns in June

Robert Steenson, executive director for enterprise and communities at North Lanarkshire Council, said: "We are pleased that the independent review agrees with the council's position throughout, which is that the schools are safe and that there is no link between the schools and any serious illness."

He said the council would implement the recommendations, and accepted that concerns over blue water on the site could have been dealt with at an earlier stage.

"However, all pipework has now been replaced and water fully complies with drinking quality standards," he added.

The schools are due to reopen to pupils next week.

Gabe Docherty, director of public health at NHS Lanarkshire said: "It's vital that school life returns to normal as soon as possible and this report provides the peace-of-mind to enable that to happen."

What were the issues at the St Ambrose and Buchanan campus?

The two school buildings, along with Townhead Community Centre, opened in 2012 on a site that was used as landfill for industrial waste, including lead and arsenic, between 1945 and 1972.

Steps were taken to make the grounds safe before the campus opened in 2012, including bringing in fresh top soil.

But in March 2018, staff and students were given bottled water amid concerns about blue-tinted water coming from the taps.

Tests revealed higher than recommended levels of copper. It was blamed on corrosion and the pipes have since been replaced.

Image copyright PA Media

However, safety fears came to a head earlier this year after it emerged that four former or current members of staff at Buchanan High had been treated for cancer.

North Lanarkshire Council and NHS Lanarkshire said specialists did not believe cancer - or any other serious illness - was caused by the schools or the site on which they were built.

But it failed to allay the concerns of parents, pupils and staff and in June the Scottish government ordered an immediate review into health and safety at the campus.

A number of parents withdrew their children from the school and some teachers went on strike, with the NASUWT calling for the schools to close early for summer.

North Lanarkshire Council has long maintained that there is no evidence to show that the schools and the wider campus was unsafe. And in June the local authority created a leaflet to provide further information and reassurance to parents, staff and pupils.

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