Coatbridge’s Buchanan High teachers strike over health fears

Buchanan High School protest
Image caption Parents and pupils joined teachers on the picket line at Buchanan High School

Teachers at a Lanarkshire school at the centre of chemical contamination fears have started a week-long strike.

NASUWT union members at Buchanan High School in Coatbridge have walked out after four teachers developed cancer.

The union is calling for the entire campus – built on a former landfill site – to be tested and its two schools to be closed early for the summer.

North Lanarkshire Council said no serious illness had been linked to the schools or the site.

The council said the assisted-special-needs school would be closed during the industrial action.

The row revolves around the Townhead Road campus, comprising Buchanan High, St Ambrose High and Townhead Community Centre.

Image caption Teachers at Buchanan High School have begun strike action over safety fears at the campus where they work
Image caption Parents say they are worried about the health of children attending the campus

The three buildings opened in 2012 on a site that was used as landfill for industrial waste, including lead and arsenic, between 1945 and 1972.

In March 2018, bottled water was used at the high schools after blue-tinted water was discovered coming from pipes, with tests later revealing higher than recommended levels of copper. This was blamed on corrosion, and the pipes have since been replaced.

Fears over the safety of the site came to a head after it emerged four former or current members of staff at Buchanan High had received treatment for cancer.

However, the council and health board said specialist doctors did not believe cancer – or any other serious illness – was caused by the schools or the site on which they were built.

The NASUWT said its members felt their concerns had been dismissed and that more needed to be done to reassure staff and parents.

The union repeated calls for an independent full-site review, including up-to-date tests of the soil and air, and for the schools to close immediately for the summer break.

Image caption NASUWT members at Buchanan High are on strike

Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary, said: “Our members are suffering deep stress and anxiety about their health and welfare due to the failure of their employer to take the necessary action to provide assurances about the safety of the site.

“While the independent review promised by the Scottish government is a welcome development, it still does not commit to a full comprehensive site survey which tests the water, air, soil and fabric of the building.

“Teachers are deeply anxious about whether there is any link between conditions at the school, including the blue water and a range of health issues among staff.”

Mr Keates called for a site survey to be commissioned immediately and for the schools to be closed to “give teachers and indeed pupils and parents some respite from the daily anxiety of having to attend the school site.”

A total of 16 staff from Buchanan High will strike from 20 to 28 June, with members from St Ambrose joining the strike and bringing the numbers to about 40 on Tuesday 25 June.

It comes as more than 16,000 people signed a petition calling for an investigation and for staff and pupils to be tested for toxins.

Lisa McCormick a spokesperson for the parents support group said: “We are sending a clear message to North Lanarkshire Council and to NHS Lanarkshire, something is making our children sick, something that the effects, in the main seem to disappear when our children leave the school premises.

“If it is not toxins and the campus is safe then what is it? Please stop relying on 10-year-old risk assessments to argue it is safe, do all the necessary tests.”

Image copyright Karen Morgan
Image caption Sunken ground has been visible around the sides of the building

The Scottish government announced an independent review of the site last week but parents said this did not go far enough.

On Wednesday, the independent review team visited both schools.

Paul Cackette and Dr Margaret Hannah, who are leading the review, met the head teachers of Buchanan High and St Ambrose, public health experts from NHS Lanarkshire and representatives of North Lanarkshire Council.

They are making arrangements to meet parents next week.

‘No evidence’

Tests at the campus found higher levels of copper in the water in some areas of the school, which can lead to discolouration.

More than 1,800 metres of copper piping has been replaced with plastic pipes across the site, opened in 2012, which also includes Townhead Community Centre.

Ahead of the strike, Gerard McLaughlin, head of education at the council said, “Despite the facts being presented about the water being safe at the school campus and evidence demonstrating that it has been since early December and as recently as 29 April, and that public health has stated there is no evidence to support a link between blue water at the school or the site itself and any serious ill health, the NASUWT has decided to take industrial action at Buchanan High School.

“This follows extensive dialogue between senior council officials and representatives of the NASUWT over the last 24 hours.

“We understand the impact that this will have on pupils and parents at Buchanan High School as a direct consequence of this action. Having assessed the potential impact, we have regrettably decided that Buchanan High School will be unable to receive pupils during the period of industrial action due to the specific medical needs of some of the pupils.

“Neither the school nor the council would ever take any risks with young people’s safety.”

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