Decade-long health concerns found where students suffered medical episodes at Long Island school

Kristin Thorne Image
Friday, February 17, 2023
Decade-long concerns found where LI students had medical episodes
Smithtown High School West on Long Island, where several students suffered medical episodes, has been under investigation since 2012.

SMITHTOWN, Long Island (WABC) -- An Eyewitness News investigation has found that the area of a high school on Long Island where several students suffered medical episodes last month is the same part of the school building that has been under investigation by health authorities since 2012.

Parents and others told Eyewitness News in January -- on separate days -- four students suffered medical episodes in a classroom in G Tower. Parents described the medical incidents as fainting and seizures.

Parents tell Eyewitness News that at least one of the students may have fainted as a result of seeing the other student faint or have a seizure.

Eyewitness News found the area of the building known as G Tower has been the subject of at least four environmental health investigations dating back more than a decade.

"We can't be relaxed about this," Jeanmarie Wilson, a retired Smithtown High School West guidance counselor, told Eyewitness News investigative reporter Kristin Thorne.

Wilson was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2010 and worked in the guidance suite in G Tower.

"Other colleagues that I worked with very closely had breast cancer, lymphoma, skin cancer, Type 1 diabetes, serious autoimmune issues, recurring sinus infections and neurological issues," she said. "It just seemed to be wherever I turned there was somebody with a chronic illness. The numbers didn't make sense."

The health investigations began in 2012 when faculty members reported mass illness to health authorities, particularly around the guidance suite.

Michelle Thompson, a guidance counselor, was diagnosed with thyroid nodules in 2011.

"I had a year in the suite where I worked where I looked around and I realized that every person I was working with was sick and so I went to my doctor and I said, do me a favor, just examine my thyroid," she said. "It turns out, I have numerous nodules on my thyroid. I have to go every year for a sonogram. I've had four biopsies and, so far, I've been very lucky."

In July 2013, the Smithtown School District retained environmental testing company J.C. Broderick and Associates, which conducts environmental testing for schools throughout Long Island, to perform limited indoor air quality monitoring of the guidance suite area. The company told the school district nothing alarming was found.

"The results of the visual inspection, monitoring, and sampling performed did not reveal evidence of any significant indoor air quality concerns within the Guidance Suite," the company wrote in an October 9, 2013 letter.

In 2015, health officials with Eastern Suffolk BOCES did another inspection of the building and found no contaminants.

In 2018, faculty members requested another health investigation. The school district retained J.C. Broderick again who performed radon sampling, carbon monoxide monitoring, humidity monitoring and air testing for volatile organic compounds. The sampling and monitoring did not reveal the presence of any contaminants at hazardous concentrations.

The Smithtown School District discussed the High School West building during a virtual Board of Education meeting on Nov. 10, 2020.

The district retained another environmental testing company, Enviroscience Consultants, who reviewed the testing report from J.C. Broderick and concurred that the air quality was "unremarkable as pertains to environmental health and safety concerns."

In 2019, more studies were conducted, including one which found elevated levels of copper in the soil outside the guidance suite. J.C. Broderick told the school district that it appeared to be an isolated sample and federal health authorities would later determine the district was correct in not conducting further testing for copper.

In 2021, faculty requested soil testing be conducted in the storm drain outside G Tower after saying they saw maintenance crews dump paint down the drain.

They provided the pictures to Eyewitness News which shows a large area of white film on the concrete.

The school district told Eyewitness News the substance was a water-based field marking paint used on the athletic fields.

Staff in Suffolk County Department of Health Services' Office of Pollution Control conducted an investigation of the well on March 19, 2021. Soil samples were taken for analyses for volatile organic chemicals, semi-volatile organic chemicals, and metals.

Based on the sample results, OPC staff determined that no contaminants exceed the action levels defined in the Suffolk County Sanitary Code. They sent a letter to the district stating no further action was required on the part of the school district.

In 2021, those with the federal National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted their own review, including meeting with affected faculty members, and concluded there was no "evidence of hazardous exposures" and the illnesses among people in G Tower were not related to a common workplace exposure.

"We have not identified a potential source of exposure within the school environment that fits the three components of an occupational exposure assessment," they wrote in a letter to the school district.

NIOSH also reviewed the testing done by J.C. Broderick and concluded, "Overall, we found that the sampling and analytical methods were standard, validated methods used in assessing exposures in workplaces. We also found that the laboratories were appropriately accredited to perform the analyses requested."

Parents and others tell Eyewitness News during the week of January 9, four students suffered medical episodes in a classroom in G Tower.

The school principal, John Coady, sent a letter home to parents informing them that the district dispatched the senior safety officer from Eastern Suffolk BOCES to check the classroom and that two inspections were performed.

"No contaminants were found in the classroom and there was no detection of any leaks, odors or health and safety concerns," Coady wrote.

Eyewitness News requested the test results from the district, but the district said there were no lab test results to provide.

"The inspection and testing was done in accordance with the EPA's IAQ Tools for Schools Program using a handheld real-time monitoring device which provides an instant readout to the inspector," the district said in a statement. "If anything of concern was found, the District would have taken the appropriate steps to address it."

Eyewitness News spoke with one parent, who did not want to be identified, who said she had her child removed from the classroom in G Tower following the students' medical episodes.

Eyewitness News requested an on-camera interview with district superintendent Mark Secaur to go over the district's response to the recent student medical episodes and the years of testing at G Tower, but the school's public relations firm, Syntax, said Secaur was declining an on-camera interview.

Amy Insana, a current Smithtown High School West guidance counselor, said she would like to see another testing company brought in.

Insana, who said she is currently on district-approved medical leave, was diagnosed with thyroid issues and an autoimmune condition in 2020.

"There is a serious problem at Smithtown High School West that needs to be addressed immediately because in the two years that we've waited for intervention more people are sick and we know that because we're friends with them," she said.

Insana, Thompson and Wilson said they have put together a list of 50 people they know who work or worked in Smithtown High School West who have been diagnosed with serious medical issues.

"There are too many people who are sick in the building and dying," Thompson said. "In my private life, I don't have nearly the amount of people who are ill as I've had in my professional life - there's no comparison."

Insana, Thompson and Wilson said they would like to see the school district bring in another environmental testing company and that deep soil testing be conducted.

The school district said in a statement to Eyewitness News they are not considering any future environmental testing of the building.

"NIOSH further indicated that although the School District would be willing to consider additional testing, they did not believe that any further testing was necessary," the district said.

After Eyewitness News aired our story on Smithtown High School West, the district sent a letter to parents throughout the district.

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