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Your Turn: State has failed to keep students safe


Elmira High School is the site of ongoing health concerns from decades-old industrial pollutants.
(Photo: Jeff Murray / Staff photo)

The toxins found at Elmira High School (formerly known as Southside High School) create a dangerous environment for its students and staff.

The state Department of Health (DOH) has really dropped the ball in ensuring the safety of the students who currently attend the school, not to mention the thousands of past students and staff who have studied and worked there since opening its doors in the late 1970s.

I am a 1984 graduate of Southside High School (SHS), and I was diagnosed with testicular cancer in April of 2004. Shortly after my diagnosis, I heard about a cluster of cancer cases among other SHS alumni and students. I also learned that the DOH was conducting an investigation of toxic exposure at this site.

Upon reaching out in 2004 to notify the DOH of my cancer diagnosis, I was informed that the investigation was closed in 2003 because there were no findings of increases in incidences of cancer among current or former students. Further, the DOH expressed that they were not interested in my case since I was “out of the age range of who they were looking at.”

Especially given the current findings of toxicity, this response is shocking to me. Indeed at the time of my diagnosis, I was older than the usual testicular cancer patient, but I had attended SHS and the now well-documented evidence shows the site to be polluted with extremely toxic PCBs and other cancer causing contaminants. My question is how is it my case was summarily dismissed as irrelevant? If anything, since my case was unusual, I think that makes it more suspicious to be related to a toxic exposure. Also, the school was brand new when I was there. So I’m guessing the levels of toxins I was exposed to were likely much higher than they are now, given that construction and disturbance of the contaminants had just recently been completed.

Now that nearly 15 years has passed and cleanup has begun at the school, it is obvious a dangerous situation exists. The investigation of the site and surrounding areas is still not complete, based on recent statements made by the Department of Environmental Conservation and Unisys representatives at the DEC meeting earlier this month.

There has been very slow progress of the investigation of the site, and limited cleanup efforts to date. I am not aware of any efforts the DOH or Elmira City School District has made to collect any health data from former students since the initial study was completed in 2003. In fact, I have never received any inquiries as to my health status as a former SHS student. Since I have received information regarding reunions through the years, I know that is not because I could not be found.

As a result of the DOH’s 2003 decision that no problem existed at the SHS facility, they totally dropped the issue concerning toxins at the school. Additionally, at least in my experience, there has been no monitoring of alumni health statuses whatsoever after 2003. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest failures that officials have made over the many decades of mishandling of the toxic exposures at SHS.

Honestly, I believe what has happened concerning this matter is shameful, disgusting, and I sadly wonder how many people suffered needlessly or lost their lives over the years because of it.

Dr. Devin Coppola is a Tully resident.