BRADENTON, Fla. -- Bayshore High School alumni have been concerned for years about their possible exposure to cancer-causing chemicals while they were students. The issue dates back to the 1990s, when the Department of Environmental Protection began testing the site. Some ex-students worry pollutants once buried under the school have created a cancer cluster among alumni, many of whom are now speaking out about their concerns.
"One day out of the blue he called my mother saying he had stomach pains, and he insisted he go to the doctor and get checked out,” says Lecorey Fields, speaking about his brother, Zaharius Johnson. “He called back and he had stage four cancer."
Johnson was 26 when he was diagnosed. At the time he was in the prime of his life, a former University of Arizona defensive back who also played in the NFL, Johnson had just gotten married and taken a job in the counseling office at UA.
"He was so young no one thought to check for it,” Fields says. “NFL, AFL, nothing, no one saw a problem. I believe they gave him 3 or 6 months, but he lasted 8 or 9 [until] he passed November 23, 2006."
While Field’s brother's diagnosis is uncommon for his age group, some say it is extremely common for people who have attended Bayshore High.
"I had cervical cancer at 29,” says former student Donna Trask. “I had a partial hysterectomy at that time and my child has a rare birth defect, and then again I ended up with another mass and had another hysterectomy done."
Donna Trask, Zaharius Johnson, and more than 200 former students and staff who attend BHS between 1970 and 1999 all have documented cases of cancer or had children with birth defects.
"I'm beginning to wonder, with everybody being so sick, what’s going on?" Trask says.
Many former students suspect the school is at the center of what’s called a “cancer cluster,” which the National Cancer Institute defines as “the occurrence of a greater than expected number of cancer cases among a group of people in a defined geographic area over a specific time period.” The Bayshore alums have a Facebook page dedicated to their concerns, and even though these cancer clusters are rare, one New College professor says it’s a possibility.
"They are a real thing, and whether it’s a real thing in a particular case depends on a lot of factors," says New College professor Tyrone Ryba.
One possible factor is exposure to certain chemicals. According to information obtained from the Department of Environmental Protection, Bayshore High had two underground diesel tanks, one removed in 1989 and the other back in 1995. At the time of second removal, the agency took soil samples and tested for contamination. Another test was conducted in 2007. Both tests found some contamination, but Department officials said in a statement that those levels are within the legal soil and ground water limits, and that they hope that information helps bring comfort to former students and their families.
For people like Lecorey Fields, the number of cancer cases among alumni is more convincing than assurances from the Department of Environmental Protection.
"It’s too much of a coincidence for [the cancer-contamination link to] not be true,” Fields says. “It just doesn't happen that randomly where so many people get struck with bad luck."