Parliamentarians, nation updated on laboratory situation at the BHS


BASSETERRE, ST. KITTS (CUOPM) – The Ministry of Education has been working with a number of government agencies and some private sector organizations to address the dysfunction of a number of science labs and other related concerns at the Basseterre High School (BHS).



In a statement in the St. Kitts and Nevis National Assembly on Wednesday, Minister of Education, Sen. the Hon. Nigel Carty said that the use of the science laboratories in any school is of critical importance as part of the Ministry’s Science Programme and for this primary reason anything which hinders the accessibility and or availability of such is of serious concern to the Ministry of Education and the government.

"Moreover, the well-being of students, teachers and other staff at our nation’s schools is paramount. Our nation’s health is our nation’s wealth," Mr. Carty said.

Speaking on the situation at the labs at the BHS, Minister Carty said it was drawn to the Ministry’s attention that some concerns connected with the possible or suspected dysfunction of the labs, their drainage system, the spillage of chemicals, or the existence of radioactive materials within the lab or the school, had been generated among staff and students at the school.

He told Parliamentarians and the Nation that reports have been made of persons becoming ill and developing a variety of unusual symptoms.

"Earlier in the year, the Ministry of Education commissioned an investigation into the reports at the BHS to glean scientific information as a basis for its actions since the suspicions and concerns appeared wide and varied. The investigator, Dr. Milton Whitaker, was contracted to conduct an evaluation of the air quality in the Chemistry and Physics laboratories and the surrounding areas. He visited the school on four occasions. His scope of work involved mainly tests for radioactivity in the labs and interviews with teachers.

One of the findings of the investigation is categorically that there is no radioactivity within the labs or the school environment that could possibly have been the source of the reported concerns. His report informed that there is a small amount of radioactivity everywhere on earth and that the measurements taken at the BHS were fully consistent with this expectation.

The report also stated that some of the reports about burning eyes and skin irritation within the lab environment could have been as a result of a broken cap on a bottle of nitric acid, a standard lab chemical with which science teachers are very familiar. However, it would appear from the reports from some teachers that the skin and eye irritation symptoms were not confined to the lab environment. Indeed, even as the labs have been abandoned, reports of the symptoms have not abated and reportedly have come from persons on both sides, eastern and western, of the school’s campus.

Although no definitive conclusions could have been drawn from the Whittaker investigation with respect to the possible dysfunction of the drainage and sewage system, the report nonetheless recommended that consideration be given to upgrading or renovating these systems to remove any possibility of their being the source of the reported concerns.

Additionally, the report provided recommendations for immediate action and recommendations for dealing with the School-Based Assessment (SBA) records which were stored in the laboratories. However, teachers complained that the SBAs were so contaminated, possibly with radioactivity, that they could not be touched. There were reports from the science teacher that rubber gloves being used to handle the documents were turning brown before her eyes. As a result, an accommodation had to be worked out between the Ministry of education and the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) to avoid automatic failure on the part of the affected students. It was not an easy task to convince CXC and it appeared that they were very skeptical about of the argument we were advancing. They apparently had other views, but we prevailed upon them.

Importantly, the Whittaker report noted that although teachers may in fact have been physically affected, some of the effects were psychological in nature. There are some who have misconstrued this conclusion, inadvertently or otherwise, and so this is worth clarification. This conclusion does not in any way, shape or form suggest or insinuate that anyone has a psychological or psychotic disorder or problem. To us in the Ministry, as I believe to any objective reader, it simply highlights the fact that we as human beings are all psychological beings and our experiences impact upon our perception.

Dr. Whittaker made a number of recommendations, a number of which were pursued by the Ministry. This work is incomplete.

1. Public Works was commissioned to examine and correct any possible flaws in the soak away/sewage system.

2. The attempt was made to source a trailer type laboratory. However, it needed major reconstruction. We agreed in the alternative to work with the WAHS, the CFBC, contacted medical universities, and were making arrangements with the ICCS for the use of their labs by the science students of the BHS. These it would appear, were either inconvenient or not workable at all.

3. The SBA books which were presumed to be contaminated were removed and placed in the Agricultural Science Lab on the eastern campus of the school.

However, there were a number of obstacles that my ministry confronted, one of them being that the report presented by Dr. Whittaker was not held to be acceptable. Firstly, the suggestion that some of the effects experienced were psychological were regarded as derogatory and insidious.

At our recent November 8 meeting that my ministry held with the staff of the BHS, two teachers made comments to that effect. Secondly, over the months that the report has been available, its conclusion on the matter of the suspected radioactivity has not helped to reduce concerns surrounding this possibility. Only on Monday of this week, some teachers at the BHS aligned with the teachers union issued a press release stating that gloves they were wearing were changing colour before their very eyes. We do not doubt for one moment that rubber gloves can change colour, for a variety of reasons.

Principal and teachers advocated for a Dr. Powitz from the USA to come in and do his own assessment.

Although a previous written report and other unwritten reports, for example from the Multipurpose Laboratory/Bureau of Standard, have suggested authoritatively much to the contrary, there has been that lingering view held by some teachers at the BHS that there is something radioactive taking place. Reports have suggested that dust and bacterial agents trapped in ceilings can be responsible for some of the symptoms reported. The continued promulgation of some of the views has prevented stakeholders from coming forward to assist where ordinarily they would have. To make the point, my ministry is in receipt of correspondence from the Public Works Department stating that that agency will not assign anyone to do repair works at the BHS unless these issues have been resolved. Other partners outside of government, medical universities for example, have said that given the extent of the issues that are being ventilated, they do not have the capacity to assist.

Another difficulty experienced in addressing the issues at the BHS has to do with what I refer to as a situational creep. The concern about illness and possible chemical contaminants first arose at the Biology lab located near the entry point of the main campus of the school compound. When that lab was closed in response to the concern, the Chemistry lab was then thought to have become contaminated since supplies from the Biology lab were relocated there. Then the Physics lab became a problem since it was close by. Then rooms in the vicinity of these labs became centres of concern, and all these labs and rooms have been vacated and abandoned. But the problems did not subside.

Then an Agricultural Science lab on the eastern campus, across the playing field at the BHS, was identified with similar concerns since, reportedly, SBA documents from the western campus where the problem first arose were transferred to that space. The extent of these concerns could only have persisted on the basis of a belief or a genuine experience that is consistent with radioactive contamination or some other form of very highly potent chemical contamination – which we are investigating.

So, the fire services were called in to flush out the Agricultural Science lab. The area of ground where the water from the flushing has run then became a concern. Persons were reported getting sick as a consequence of the fact that the water was contaminated and ran across the open school yard. The ministry has recently learnt that the French Room and the Home Economic Centre at the BHS are now plagued with their own difficulties. One teacher has reported getting an itchy skin in the French Room, for example.

We are treating all of these reports as serious and genuine since the health of staff and students is supreme. We are very sensitive to the concerns of the teachers at the school. The Ministry of Health has been on board with us from the beginning and recently they have again given their commitment to assist us in checking out these new areas of concern.

The preceding scenario has presented a moving target. It may very well be valid as suggested in the Whittaker report that at least "some of the reported effects are psychological."

With that background, it is, I believe, easy to understand why teachers and students at the BHS, parents, the Ministry of Education, and the government that has been kept abreast, are so concerned about what is taking place at the BHS. It is also easy to understand why before moving further, it has become necessary to seek further investigative assistance to buttress earlier reports.

In my ministry’s meeting of November 8 earlier referenced, the ministry gave an undertaking to contract consultants from Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (CARIRI) out of Trinidad. We had hoped that the consultants would have been in country by last weekend (i.e one week later). However, the CEO particularly in concluding her response to questions regarding the date of arrival suggested that it was better that we not put a hard date but commit to getting the consultants in as soon as possible since all things were not within her control. The consultants are now on island as speak. We hope to have a report from CARIRI in some form very shortly.

My ministry understands that the SKTU has taken action as of Monday November 19 due to the failure of the consultants to have arrived by the last weekend. This is wholly unfortunate since there was ongoing update of the Principal of the school who happens to be the General Secretary of the Union. As highlighted above, much in relation to addressing the concerns at the BHS depends on the outcome of the CARIRI report since previous reports have not moved us forward. It is hoped that the reports which may emerge would allay many of the concerns and engender confidence among stakeholders on whom we depend to help in the implementation of recommendations.

Photo # 1 – Minister of Education, Sen. the Hon. Nigel Carty

Photo # 2 – The Basseterre High School

News Story Provided by Erasmus Wiliiams