CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Nine employees who worked at the Smith Family Center, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools building on Tyvola Road, said they were diagnosed with cancer.
There’s no one working inside the building now. Channel 9 discovered CMS moved more than 100 employees out of there in April after many voiced serious concerns about their health and fears the building could be the cause of their problems.
But those employees fighting cancer say changing their workplace location isn’t enough, and that their calls for an investigation are being ignored.
The Smith Family Center is where families would go to enroll their kids or learn about CMS Magnet and Pre-K programs. Now, signs say it’s closed, but neighbors and people passing by may not know why.
Several current and former employees -- some whom worked at the Smith Family Center for as long as 9 years -- wrote a letter to Channel 9 asking to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.
“Employees have endured working in a building with HVAC issues, black mold, brown water, mice, roaches and many days of the strong smell of pesticides,” the letter said.
Those employees said they differed various health issues like migraines, sinus infections and allergies, but much more concerning, were nine cancer diagnoses, including breast, lung, anal and esophageal cancer.
Records Channel 9 obtained from CMS show the district’s March 2021 assessment of the property looked at asbestos, radon, water and indoor air quality, but did not find “any identifiable environmental factors that are suspected causes of employee health concerns.”
Still, the district relocated the employees who worked there.
But some of those employees say that isn’t enough. They want an outside investigation and have filed complaints with state and federal authorities.
North Carolina Department of Labor officials said because the employees “did not allege any specific violation of an OSHA standard,” they deemed the complaint non-valid, but asked CMS to investigate “in an effort to prevent exposure to cancer causing agents.”
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health offered to investigate any possible connection between the cancer cases and the Smith Family Center, but CMS declined their assistance. Because Smith Family Center workers are state government employees, “NIOSH does not have the authority to proceed with its evaluation without the Board of Education’s cooperation.”
Anchor Allison Latos contacted every CMS school board member for an interview for this report. Latos also asked to speak with CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston. No one would speak to Latos on or off camera. But Mecklenburg County Commissioner Laura Meier who represents District 5, did.
“People don’t trust the government and this is a great example of why. We need to be more transparent,” Meier said.
When we shared the employees’ concerns with Meier, she also contacted the school board and the state.
“I have gotten no answers. Zero,” she said. “If there is something there, they need to know.”
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The workers who wrote to Channel 9 said they feel “extremely undervalued as employees of CMS.”
“We have tried to be patient and have trust that our employer will listen to our requests and have our best interests in mind, but it has become clear that this is not the case. We believe that if this was an occurrence in the private sector or if this involved children contracting illnesses in a school, an investigation would have occurred immediately,” the letter also said.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said the Central Cancer Registry could not conduct a standard cluster analysis to compare breast cancer rates by geographic location, since the school employees live in several counties.
What happens to the building is also in question. CMS hasn’t told Channel 9 its plans, other than employees will not be back inside.
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