WOODBRIDGE, NJ (PIX11) — As the investigation into what some New Jersey residents believe is a cancer cluster linked to Colonia High School continues, PIX11 News is taking an in depth look at the case.
More than 100 suspected brain tumors were discovered by Al Lupiano. The 1989 Colonia graduate and environmental scientist began connecting the dots in August of 2021 when his sister Angela was diagnosed with a malignant glioblastoma.
“The worst of the worst when it comes to brain cancer,” Lupiano said.
Later, on the same day, his wife Michele was diagnosed as well, hers was thankfully a treatable brain tumor.
“To have my diagnosis a few hours later, it was a devastating day,” she said.
It was a feeling all too familiar for the Lupianos. Al was treated for and survived a brain tumor himself back in 1999. When Michele’s doctor learned about the cluster of cases in the family, “he basically stated the chances of you all having this rare primary brain tumor, it’s like you all be hitting by lightning, at the same time, on the same day,” Lupiano recalled.
Then, like a flash of lightning, a memory struck.
“We remembered two sisters we graduated with: Cheryl and Janis Black,” Lupiano said.
Both died of malignant brain tumors a few years ago.
“We would get told by doctors it was c—-y luck, just a bad coincidence, but nothing was like ‘oh my god it’s the high school,'” said Kylie Donnelly, Cheryl’s daughter.
Scouring obituaries and old news clippings on his iPad, Lupiano found more and more Colonia High School students and staff with brain tumors as his sister got worse and worse. He had confirmed 15 cases by the time Angela began slipping away.
“I put my hand on her head and I made her a promise. I said from this point forward, I’ll do it,” Lupiano said, fighting back tears.
She died Feb.17 of 2022 and Lupiano released his findings March 7. The list kept growing. Lupiano said the list is now at 120 individuals with rare brain tumors.
“These are our people, our friends, our neighbors, people we play sports with,” said Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac.
The town immediately contracted for radiation testing. Canisters collected air samples and the entire school grounds were swept with Geiger counters.
“We did everything we could as quick as we could” McCormac said.
Results are still pending, but McCormac said no immediate red flags were raised.
“We’ve asked them, ‘hey anything yet,’ and nothing has come up yet,” he said.
Still, Lupiano worries the federal government and the state will look the other way if the local test results show no radiation. He has offered up his information.
“They said ‘if we look at the list, we’re obligated to do something and we haven’t decided if we’re going to do something yet.’ So they don’t want to look,” Lupiano said.
His wife said she doesn’t feel like they’re doing anywhere near enough. In the meantime, some parents crafted a petition asking remote learning be considered.
“There’s no danger right now that we know about, so there’s no reason to go to those extremes until we see what the test results say,” McCormac insisted.
Meanwhile, theories about why there are all these cancer cases can be found around town. Tales of a radioactive rock found at the school in the mid-90s and an old Middlesex uranium sampling plant used in the Manhattan project are among the favorite talking points.
“Nobody thinks anything was brought in from the outside,” McCormac said. “There’s a lot of theories out there about radioactive dirt, that’s all pure speculation.”
Lupiano said this all may just come down to the realities of 1960s New Jersey.
“Things were not done properly,” he said. “Back in that time, any place we can stick illegal chemicals, we did: rivers, lakes, or in a hole prior to a high school being built.”
Lupiano — an environmental scientist, brain tumor survivor, husband, and grieving brother, who has found so much already, wants to find answers. He thinks soil and water samples, at a minimum, are needed.
“We need the federal agencies to come and do what they are tasked to do this is what they receive tax dollars to do,” Lupiano said. “They need to do the study.”
A spokeswoman for Gov.Phil Murphy issued the following statement in regards to specific community concerns about the state’s involvement: “The Administration understands the importance of addressing residents’ concerns in a timely, effective manner. The Governor’s Office and the New Jersey Departments of Health and Environmental Protection are continuing to take thorough steps and support Township Officials in addressing residents’ concerns. The Administration also continues to engage with the Township on how we can best support local officials as they prepare to disseminate information about the analyses that have been conducted once the results of the requisite environmental impact study are complete.”
The NJ Department of Health issued the following statement: “Ensuring the continued protection of public health is a core principle of both the New Jersey Department of Health and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Our agencies are aware of the concerns raised by local residents, particularly as they relate to Colonia High School, and are partnering with Mayor McCormac and Woodbridge Township to better understand the issue and determine whether any relevant environmental exposure concerns are present at the site. The Departments are taking thorough measures to address this situation, including supporting Woodbridge in reviewing the environmental data collected at the school.”
A spokesperson for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Environmental Health promised a statement, but as of this posting, PIX11 has not received it.