Glasgow & West Scotland

FM will do 'everything necessary' to allay fears over Coatbridge schools

School protest
Image caption Parents and pupils turned out to support the strike action at Buchanan High

Nicola Sturgeon has promised to do "everything necessary" to allay health concerns about a school built on a landfill site in Lanarkshire.

But the first minister said any decision on new testing was a matter for an independent review team.

Staff at Buchanan High in Coatbridge, where four teachers have developed cancer, have begun a week-long strike.

The NASUWT union wants the entire campus to be tested and its two schools to be closed early for the summer.

North Lanarkshire Council has insisted that no serious illness has been linked to the schools or the site.

At First Minister's Questions, pressed by Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, Ms Sturgeon said: "I fully understand the concerns of parents, staff and pupils at the school.

"I am determined - as the government is determined - to do everything necessary to allay those concerns, address any issues and establish confidence."

Ms Sturgeon said the review, ordered by the government last week, would have the ability to look into "any relevant matter".

She added: "It will be for the review team to consider what further tests on pupils, staff and indeed the site itself, are required."

Image copyright PA
Image caption The FM said there was a duty to convince parents that the school site was safe for pupils and staff

Ms Davidson told the chamber that trust between parents and staff at the school, and the local government and health authorities, was breaking down.

She added: "I very much hope that the assurances given by the first minister today will seek to restore that trust."

Why are parents and teachers worried?

Image copyright Google
Image caption The Townhead Road campus was built on a former industrial landfill site

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

It opened in 2012 on a former landfill site that was used for the disposal of industrial waste including lead and arsenic between 1945 and 1972.

Last year there was concern that blue-tinted water was coming from taps, and bottled water was issued to staff and pupils.

An investigation found higher than recommended levels of copper in the water - blamed on corrosion of the copper pipework which was subsequently replaced by plastic piping.

Health fears grew in recent weeks after it emerged that four current or former teachers at Buchanan High had developed cancer.

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

One parent of a child who suffered a rapid deterioration in his eyesight has said he had higher than normal levels of arsenic in his body. Other parents at a recent public meeting described pupils suffering fatigue and nosebleeds.

Another worry is that parts of the campus have show signs of subsidence.

More than 16,000 people have signed a petition calling for an investigation and for staff and pupils to be tested for toxins.

How have the authorities responded?

North Lanarkshire Council has repeatedly insisted there was no evidence that either the "blue water" or the site itself was a risk to health.

A public health expert told parents the cancers developed by the teachers had a long "latency" - the length of time between exposure to environmental triggers and becoming unwell - indicating that the campus itself could not be a factor.

Last week the Scottish government intervened to try to restore confidence by ordering an independent review led by chief planning reporter Paul Cackette and Dr Margaret Hannah, a former director of public health.

Their brief is to assess existing evidence and determine if more needs to be done, reporting back before the new academic year starts in August.

Parents who have concerns about their children's health are advised to discuss them with their GP.

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs she would receive an update later on Thursday and that the review team's final report would be completed before the end of the summer break.

She said government officials were liaising with NHS Lanarkshire over any additional resources that may be required.

Why are parents and teachers still not satisfied?

They are worried that the review team will focus only on existing evidence rather than investigating the current situation.

They are calling for the air and soil to be tested, and for parents to be offered testing for their children.

Image caption Teachers at Buchanan High School have begun strike action over safety fears at the campus where they work

The NASUWT, which represents a number of staff at Buchanan High, says the term should be ended early while these investigations are carried out.

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."

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

The council said that Buchanan High, an additional support needs school, would remain closed during the industrial action.

The independent review team met head teachers from both high schools as well as officials from North Lanarkshire Council and NHS Lanarkshire earlier this week. It plans to meet parents next week.

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