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Old Fort Elementary School health study completed

Release Date: February 19, 2010
Contact: Carol Schriber, 919-733-9190

RALEIGH – In response to concerns of a resident about cancer cases among people who worked at the Old Fort Elementary School in McDowell County, public health and environmental officials have been conducting a health and environmental study of the area. That study is now complete.

The N.C. Division of Public Health (DPH) and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) worked together to evaluate the potential adverse health effects among students and staff at the elementary school as a result of possible contact with toxic chemicals, asbestos and radon. The school is adjacent to the Old Fort Finishing site, 128 Mauney Ave.

DPH evaluated all available data from different sources on cancer rates in the area, groundwater contamination, and on the presence of volatile organic compounds, asbestos-containing materials and radon in the building and surrounding environment.

The health experts found that the cancer rates among people at the school were not any higher than would be generally expected in a comparable population. They did not find any indication that those at the school were in contact with toxic chemicals from the Old Fort Industrial Park site or with asbestos within the school. People’s health is not harmed if they do not come in contact with those contaminants. However, the health experts did find that people in the school could have been in contact with harmful levels of radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas. Breathing air with elevated radon levels for a long time increases the risk of lung cancer.

Radon is present in soil, rock, and water and is not associated with the Old Fort Finishing site. The western and mountain counties of North Carolina have the highest levels of radon in the state. 

The Old Fort Elementary School is working to reduce the radon levels and is planning to re-test the school to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts. The N.C. Division of Public Health recommends that the McDowell County School System also work to reduce radon levels in other schools with radon levels over the “action level” of 4 pCi/L (4 pico-Curies per liter).

The full health consultation report and a two-page summary of the findings are posted on the Public Health Assessment, Consultation and Education (HACE) Web site at www.epi.state.nc.us/epi/oee/hace/reports.html.