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Was there a cancer cluster at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' building? School system is investigating
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Was there a cancer cluster at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' building? School system is investigating

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CHARLOTTE — The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board is investigating whether there is an “occupational cancer cluster” at its Smith Family Center, the board said in a statement Thursday.

The building, which housed non-instructional staff off of Tyvola Road, has been vacant since March, when it was closed because of the unusual number of cancer cases among staff who worked there.

The district is looking to demolish the building and sell the property, but not before officials have completed all tests recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health.

“Over the past few years there have been rumors about a troubling pattern of people who worked at CMS’ Smith facility getting sick,” said Justin Parmenter, who worked in the building from 2006-2011. He now teaches at South Academy of International Languages.

“I’m not that worried about my own health because I was in a trailer classroom,” he told the Observer. “But the number of people who worked there that got cancer is really odd, so I’m very glad it’s going to be investigated.”

WSOC-Channel 9 reported this month that a dozen former school employees who worked in the building have been diagnosed with cancer.

Parmenter told board members Tuesday night during their meeting that retired principal Ynez Olshausen revealed she is battling cancer. Olshausen worked in the building for nearly nine years when it was known as the Smith Academy of International Languages.

“One of the things I appreciated about her leadership the most was that she saw each of her employees and students first as people who deserved to be valued for their gifts and supported when they needed it,” Parmenter said about Olshausen.

She told WSOC-Channel 9 that in January, doctors discovered a rare tumor in her face, making her the 12th current or former employee who worked at the building to be diagnosed with cancer.

District taking steps

In its statement, the board said when the matter was first brought to executives’ attention, Superintendent Earnest Winston moved employees out of the site.

“We then began to explore how best to assess the building’s safety and to investigate if employee health has been compromised by it,” the statement reads.

The district has researched the Centers for Disease Control guidelines for investigating cancer-cluster concerns; met with experts; met with employees of the state Department of Health and Human Services; and last week, met with NIOSH.

“These are serious and frightening issues for our employees, and we share their concerns,” the board statement reads. “Once we receive the results from the NIOSH evaluation, they will be shared with the employees and the public...”

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