ALBION — Is there an elevated risk for breast cancer in teachers? Yes. Is there an elevated risk for breast cancer in the Albion School District? That needs to be investigated.
In the January Albion School Board meeting, the Albion Teachers Association asked the board of education to look into why there are so many incidents of cancer and serious illness among the staff. On Thursday evening, the school board held a special meeting at the middle school auditorium where Nellie Brown, director of the Workplace Health and Safety Program at Cornell University, gave a presentation on what could cause breast cancer, and where Jim Bowers, a scientist who studied the pattern of illness from the state Health Department, answered any questions the public might have.
Brown explained teaching is one of the professions internationally which has a high risk for cancer, and despite numerous studies a clear answer as to why has yet to be answered. New York State’s average of breast cancer diagnosed per year per 100,000 women is 131.3 compared to the national average of 119.8. Orleans, on the other hand, has 114.4 per 100,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer. While the morality of breast cancer has been declining over the years, the incident rate has been climbing.
Albion schools can be investigated by using tools developed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency such as Tools for Schools and the more recently developed Healthy Schools Environmental Assessment Tool. Addressing the indoor air investigation consists of investigating the building — checking out the ventilation system, finding out if there is enough fresh air, examine the intakes and exhausts for the building and rooms, check out the HVAC performance and maintenance, and look for containment sources on the inside, outside, biological and building fabric.
There are many risks related to breast cancer; however, in an environmental link to breast cancer, inherited factors take up 27 percent of the risk as opposed the environmental factors which take up 73 percent of the risk, suggesting environmental factors play a major role in determining breast cancer risk. However, there is also an underlying risk for breast cancer due to breast carcinogens.
There are a lot of different breast carcinogens used in schools such as methylene chloride, benzene, formaldehyde and glycidol and these affect the endocrine glands.
“These are glands which control major body systems that regulates the body process. Anything that disrupts the activity of control can have tremendous affects throughout the body,” Brown explained, adding some of the endocrine glands include the pituitary, thyroid, pancreas, adrenal cortex, testes, ovaries and small fat cells which regulate blood glucose and blood insulin levels. In recent studies, it was found out the endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC) interferes with the hormonal balance, interfering with a lot of different possibilities.
“The discovery of endocrine disruption has turned the entire view of chemical toxicity upside down,” she said. “Our classic dose response relationship now no longer makes sense.”
In the past, the understanding was that the dose makes the poison — the higher the dose, the more dangerous the reaction. However, with EDC that’s not the case. Sometimes a very tiny dose is enough to cause an endocrine disruption, and the timing of the exposure can make all the difference. Brown said this is where scientists are suspecting people had exposure pre-conception that set them up to develop breast cancer later in life.
Exposure happens in the air we breath, the food we eat and drink, breast milk, contact with skin or eyes, and some chemicals. Once it gets into the blood stream there is exposure everywhere in the body. Each chemical is unique how it affects the body and early exposure can affect breast cancer rates. Unfortunately, research and public policies has tended to focus on individual lifestyle, genetics, early detection and treatment options. The involuntary and commonly-shared hazards and risks factors associated with chemicals — the causes of breast cancer that can be prevented or reduced — are passed over, ignored, and/or downplayed.
Bowers job is looking for a number of things which might insinuate if what is going on is unusual. This includes the number of diagnoses of the same type of cancer, looking for unusual age groups and people who wouldn’t normally expect to see getting sick — such as men for breast cancer — as well as latency, or the how many cases there are over a period of time. However, members of the school district wanted to know what and when is Albion going to do to more specifically address the concerns.
Bowers said this is a common call he gets to school, and testing is one of the things which comes up.
“One of the problems is, what do you test for?” he asked, explaining while a test can looking for x, y and z, there are hundreds types of chemicals it could be and the district could spend tens of thousands of dollars testing for everything and not necessarily come up with an answer. “What I’m trying to convey is that testing might not be the end all be all. You might not ever get a smoking gun why this is happening.”
Margy Brown, president of the board of education, said nobody on the school board are experts and they are here to reach out to the experts to find a way to navigate through the situation.
“We’re trying to educate ourselves as a board as to what is the next we should do — if there should be a next step — to try to make sure our school is safe, our community is safe,” she said. “We want to do our best for everybody.”
Betty Sue Miller, the library director at the Hoag Library, stood up and said she had breast cancer twice, and despite teaching at the district for a short period of time, she doesn’t believe it has anything to do with the school. However, she said, she also grew up in Albion and went to school to Albion, so there have been was a link between all the time spent in the community and the building.
“I have a couple of requests,” Miller said. “One is if there is an increase in cancer rate for teachers then let all teachers know that. Let’s present new teachers with that data when they start and … if you know there is an increased risk, you then look more carefully at what you are doing to prevent becoming one of those statistics.”
She also asked the board to do the study mentioned to analyze the air quality and go from there.
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