People tied to a Woodbridge, NJ school are getting cancer, prompting calls for action
WOODBRIDGE — A New Jersey man is on a mission to find a link between rare brain tumors in more than 60 graduates and former staff at Colonia High School, including his wife and late sister.
Al Lupiano graduated from the Middlesex County school in 1989. He believes something at the high school in one of the more suburban and affluent sections of the township is responsible for dozens of brain cancer cases.
As a Rutgers University graduate with a major in environmental sciences and a minor in industrial hygiene safety engineering, he's made a career of cleaning up unsafe sites. Now, he's gone public with the suggestion that Colonia could be one such site.
After seeing a social media post from Lupiano earlier this month, concerned residents reached out to Mayor John McCormac.
"I talked to him a little bit and learned about what he had been working on," McCormac told New Jersey 101.5. "It was clearly alarming enough that it merited further attention and I just helped him get that attention. I'm still helping him get more attention."
'Al has presented enough evidence that warrants further attention, but we have to rely on the experts to draw their conclusions.'
Research in the early stages
Lupiano and McCormac have spoken to officials with the state Department of Health and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. McCormac has also reached out to U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J 6th District.
McCormac and Lupiano are waiting to hear back from the EPA. Lupiano would like their investigators to come in over spring break so that students are not disturbed.
"They'll have the means to do air sampling, water sampling and soil sampling," Lupiano told New Jersey 101.5. "The sooner we can get them to listen to us, the sooner we can do something."
There are no easily available records from the land before CHS was built in 1967, according to McCormac. To his knowledge, there was nothing remotely dangerous at the site.
McCormac speaks highly of Lupiano, who worked for nine years after college with EPA emergency responders. Lupiano said his team dealt with anti-terrorism work, radioactive materials, and chemical and biological agents.
For another two decades, he held similar jobs with big companies including Lockheed Martin. And over the last 18 years, Lupiano has worked for Marine Spill Response Corp. It's the largest oil spill cleanup company in the United States.
McCormac, who lives three blocks from Colonia High School, is not yet convinced of a link. The mayor says only the experts are qualified to make an actionable connection between the cases and CHS.
"Al has presented enough evidence that warrants further attention, but we have to rely on the experts to draw their conclusions."
Since August, Lupiano has spent countless hours trying to find other people linked to CHS with primary brain cancers. He's identified at least 65 people.
How Lupiano developed his cancer cluster question
Al Lupiano, his wife Michele, and his sister Angela DeCillis all graduated from CHS between 1989 and 1995. And all three were diagnosed with rare forms of brain cancers or tumors on the left side of their brains.
DeCillis earned her doctorate of nursing practice from Rutgers University in 2015. She worked for 16 years to help other rising nurses at Rutgers and RWJ Barnabas Health.
In August 2021, DeCillis received her diagnosis of Grade 4 glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive, rare, and deadly form of brain cancer. She died on Feb. 17, 2022, at 44 years old.
Hours after Deciliis got her diagnosis, Lupiano's wife Michele received similar news. She had been dealing with hearing loss for several years.
An MRI revealed Michele had a 30-millimeter acoustic neuroma, another rare type of brain tumor that develops on the nerves leading to the inner ear. While benign, treatment can leave victims with hearing loss, trouble balancing, and several other serious symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The chances of one person getting acoustic neuroma are roughly 1 in 100,000, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. While not technically cancer, these brain tumors can grow and become life-threatening if left untreated.
"When I looked at the email and I saw the data I just dropped. Immediately I knew exactly what I was looking at. My wife had a 30-millimeter acoustic neuroma," Lupiano said.
Lupiano's familiarity comes from his own experience. Twenty years earlier, he was also diagnosed with an aggressive 36-millimeter acoustic neuroma. For the past two decades, he's spoken with other victims, comforting them on message boards and Facebook.
"For the most part I'm pretty good today," Lupiano said. "I have some lingering issues. I've tried to give back over the last 20 years."
For the Lupianos, they believe the chances of all three of them having tumors on the left sides of their brains were too high to be a coincidence.
Since last August, Lupiano has spent countless hours trying to find other people linked to CHS with primary brain cancers. He's identified at least 65 people, including graduates and former staff who walked the halls of CHS from 1975 to 1995. Out of roughly 10,000 people, having more than five dozen cases of brain tumors and cancers is far above the average.
Many of the former staff and teachers included in the total lived outside Woodbridge Township making the high school, so far, the only clear link.
'If it's an ongoing issue, we may have to go through this all over again in 10 to 20 years.'
The next generation
There's no proof yet that anything at CHS is the cause. However, Lupiano is still worried about his teenage nieces attending the school.
DeCillis's four teenage daughters attend Colonia schools in Woodbridge. The four-year high school has more than 1,300 students.
"That's probably been the biggest fear of all," Lupiano said. "Her four children are potentially being exposed to the same thing that killed their mother. And I know that wears on my brother-in-law, it wears on my parents. If it's an ongoing issue, we may have to go through this all over again in 10 to 20 years."
Rick Rickman is the news assistant at New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at email@example.com
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