November 7 should have been a normal school day at Northport Middle School, according to a letter that the district sent out to its families on Tuesday. However, community members organized a protest called a “sickout” Thursday morning because of ongoing concerns that date back decades with air quality issues in the building.
Most recently, a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system installed in 2018 is being blamed for causing what the district calls “unpleasant odors” in certain wings of the building. That situation, the district states, has been addressed. After inspections, it found no visible cause for the problem. It has attributed the odor to heating elements being used for the first time and debris captured in drip plates on the building’s roof. No evidence of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, airborne particulates or mold was found in its air sampling, the district said.
However, children were complaining of “dead animal smells” that caused headaches, coughing and vomiting, and after decades of ongoing health concerns, parents, retired teachers and other community members are calling for stronger action.
“The building needs to be closed,” Tara Mackey said. “No question about it.”
“The building needs to be closed, no question about it”
– Tara Mackey
Her child’s blood work, she said, identified a clear pattern of carbon monoxide exposure that spiked during school sessions and cleared during school vacations. The family ultimately moved last June in response to the concern after what she calls a two-and-a-half-year ordeal.
More than 600 students attend Northport Middle School on Middleville Road. The district did not respond to repeated requests for information on the number of students that have fallen ill from the latest air quality concerns at the school. People interviewed for this report and state on Facebook that their children in the past have suffered with nose bleeds, chronic coughs to the point of vomiting, asthma and headaches.
Parents, who have conducted their own informal study, have identified 18 students who were diagnosed over the last 10 years with leukemia, lymphoma and aplastic anemia, all rare diseases often caused by environmental exposures. Four children, they say, have died.
New York State Assemblyman Andrew Raia (R-East Northport) has asked the New York State Department of Health to conduct a longitudinal study in response to the concerns in a Nov. 1 letter. Earlier this year, lawmakers requested studies, when they learned that five recent Northport High School graduates from the same graduating class were diagnosed with blood cancers. That study is ongoing.
“We are continuing our review of cancers reportedly developed among former students of the Northport-East Northport Union Free School District,” said Erin Hammond, press officer for the state health department. “We look forward to sharing our findings with the community in early 2020. Any further investigation will depend on the findings of the ongoing review. Again, genetics, lifestyle choices and environmental exposure histories are all potential contributing factors for cancer and are taken into consideration in incidence investigations.”
Former teachers have also reportedly fallen ill. John Kobel said that he has skin cancer, prostate cancer, heavy metal contamination and occupationally induced respiratory disease after working in the science classroom in the middle school, where he said chemicals were improperly stored in a closet cesspool. The sinks’ drains, he said, also lacked traps as code dictates. The former teacher surveyed about 200 to 300 staff members and learned that 33 former teachers also have cancer.
Government officials have said in telephone interviews that they want to avoid public hysteria.
But the lack of adequate oversight has been a concern. Some people say that there is a cover-up. They say that district officials have not completed shallow and deep soil and groundwater testing on-site or published copies of the inspection reports for two 4,000-gallon underground storage tanks that store the diesel fuel for the districts buses, which refuel at the same location. They also wonder, when prompted, why the district decided against comparing the reasons for health office visits at the district’s two middle schools. They worry about underground plumes and exhaust from idling buses at the district depot on-site. There’s also been concerns about mold in the building.
The site is also roughly two miles from the Covanta plant, a facility that burns 750 tons per day of municipal waste from residential, commercial and industrial sources. The facility, which began operations in 1991, also incinerates the combustible portion of construction and demolition (C&D) debris, light industrial waste, shredded tires, sewage treatment plant sludge and other nonhazardous industrial waste streams on-site as approved by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation on a case by case basis.
Covanta Huntington, also known as the Huntington Resource Recovery Plant, is a major source of air emissions in the region and is considered among the largest in New York. The region’s air quality for oxides of nitrogen and VOCs exceed safe standards, which causes asthma and other respiratory ailments. But the facility’s emissions are within all permissible limits set for the plant by the DEC.
“It’s just not possible for Covanta to be a factor,” James Regan, media relations director. “Other schools, the Fifth Avenue School, Bellerose Avenue and Commack Union Free Schools are also close by, and they have no odor complaints there.”
Prevailing winds, Regan also said, blow its emissions in different directions. The company, he said, will gladly host a site tour to show community members how the facility works and cannot possibly be the cause.
The Suffolk County Department of Health states that schools fall under the state’s jurisdiction. The state department of health states that “local school districts are responsible for monitoring air quality in its schools.” The state health department added that it’s available for technical assistance, if requested.
Through its public relations firm, the district states that it has reached out to the state for assistance.
In the past year, the school has changed its refueling schedule for buses on site, renovated wings of the school, removed hazardous material stored on-site below classrooms and installed new ventilation equipment, among other actions taken.
The district stated in its Nov. 4 letter that the school board will discuss and approve more testing and form a committee to further review the situation at its Nov. 7 board meeting. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at W.J. Brosnan School, 158 Laurel Ave., Northport.
The district has documented the actions it’s taken and its correspondence with the public and teachers union on its website.
The Facebook page Close Northport Middle School Long Island, New York states that more than 50 people signed up to attend the “sickout.” They are calling on kids to wear blue to school, if they plan on attending classes to support the cause.
David Luces contributed to this story.