Concern after several cancer diagnoses among staff

By Jeff Simms

The Beacon City School District is conducting environmental tests at Sargent Elementary School, where a number of staff members have recently been diagnosed with cancer.

On Wednesday, Feb. 10, school officials sent a letter home — the second in several weeks — to parents and guardians of Sargent students updating them on the situation. Signed by interim Superintendent Ann Marie Quartironi, the letter said that the school system contacted the New York Department of Health (DOH) in December. Although DOH officials did not believe the number of diagnoses was unusual, the school district opted to begin testing water samples from the school last week.

Quartironi’s letter did not specify which agency conducted the water tests. They are being conducted by Smith Environmental Laboratory of Hyde Park. The results of those tests have not come back yet, Quartironi’s letter said.

In addition, according to the letter, a representative from the state Department of Labor came to Sargent to investigate a complaint received by the department. That agency has performed air quality tests and is seeking the results of the water testing when they’re available.

The five-paragraph letter concluded: “We want all parents, guardians, and staff to know that we are cooperating with all of the agencies involved and we will perform all tests needed for them to reach a conclusion. The health and safety of our students and our staff is our most important concern.”

Quartironi recapped the same news on Monday, Feb. 8, at the most recent Board of Education meeting.

The school system has not released any further information, such as the number of staff members diagnosed at Sargent, or the type(s) of cancer involved.

Sargent is one of four elementary schools in the Beacon City District and has 356 students, according to the state Department of Education.

Beacon resident Lori Merhige, who has one child at Sargent, said Wednesday she believes Quartironi is doing the best she can to keep the public informed in a uniquely challenging situation.

“I realize it’s really difficult for them,” Merhige said. “I think the district is trying to communicate as much as it can within its limitations because they can’t disclose personal information about employees.”

Alison Spodek does not have children at Sargent, but as a Vassar College assistant professor of chemistry (with a specialty in environmental chemistry), the Beacon resident offered another perspective, noting that “just because we see a number of cases doesn’t mean they’re necessarily caused by a common threat. Cancer is pretty common, unfortunately, and you expect to see some average number of cases in a community over a particular time period.”

An “average” number of cancer diagnoses — or anything else — is ultimately just a number, she said, and not necessarily indicative of any underlying cause. “An average is obtained by some communities having fewer than the average and some having more, for no particular reason,” Spodek said. “There can be a pretty wide range in the number of cases that would be considered ‘normal,’ without any particular environmental cause.

“This isn’t to say that this situation should be ignored,” she said. “It’s always worth looking into any situation where people are ill, but a number of cases is not, on its own, a reason for panic.”

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Simms has covered Beacon for The Current since 2015. He studied journalism at Appalachian State University and has reported for newspapers in North Carolina and Maryland. Location: Beacon. Languages: English. Area of expertise: Beacon politics