Schools across the country continue to battle with asbestos projects. In the past few months we have reported on asbestos concerns at schools in New Jersey, Kansas and New York. Now, a school in Lawrence, Massachusetts is faced with asbestos abatement in conjunction with a multi-million dollar renovation project. And it is causing dissension between the teachers’ union and the administration.
According to a Jan. 6 article in the Eagle Tribune, a two-alarm electrical fire broke out in a second floor classroom on Nov. 14 at Bruce School sending plumes of black smoke into the air. Nearly 600 students and teachers were evacuated that day from the school that houses third through eighth grade students. Contractors are now working to remove approximately 5,000 ceiling tiles containing asbestos from the wing where the fire occurred.
The asbestos removal is the first stage of the $2 million reconstruction of the wing of the Bruce School where the fire occurred. The wing housed about 230 students who have been relocated to St. Mary’s School and will stay there until the renovations are completed. Close to 250 students and 25 teachers are still at the school in a wing that was not damaged in the fire. The teachers’ union, however, wants that wing vacated during the renovations as well.
“If it [asbestos] breaks up, it causes cancer. That’s very concerning,” said union leader Frank McLaughlin. “I’m uncomfortable having the teachers and students there while they’re removing asbestos in another wing. All of that is connected.”
The Tribune reports that McLaughlin has called on the state Department of Public Health to monitor the asbestos remediation and to certify that the air is safe throughout all of the building before anyone is allowed back in the building.
Asbestos-containing materials, with few exceptions, are not currently banned in the U.S. and are still “managed-in-place” in schools. Many buildings built prior to the 1980’s included products that contain asbestos, such as the ceiling tiles in the 1954-built Bruce School. Under requirements set forth by the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) these asbestos-containing materials in schools must be managed in an undamaged and non-friable condition.
The Massachusetts Office of Labor and Workforce Development reports on its website that AHERA requires that schools maintain ACM [asbestos containing materials] in good condition. This includes identifying asbestos-containing materials, development of a management plan, reinspections, performing response actions, and recordkeeping requirements.
“Everyone involved – Lawrence Public Schools, city officials, the Bruce community — shares the conviction that the health of students and staff comes before anything else,” said Chris Markuns, a spokesman for school Superintendent Jeff Riley. “The remediation process, which should be finalized over the next couple weeks, will be approved by and coordinated with the state Department of Public Health.”
Although Glenn Gary, the supervisor of buildings and facilities for the Lawrence Department of Public Works, said the ceiling tiles will have to be broken to remove them, and that it is likely asbestos will be present, he is under the assumption that all appropriate precautions have been made and will continue to be taken to keep the students and teachers safe. He believes the wing is isolated from the rest of the building where the work will be done.
“I’m not concerned what-so-ever,” said Gary. “I’d put my granddaughter over there. Any other school or configuration would be more challenging. But in this one, I’m 100 percent confident that things are going to be fine.”
The risk of mesothelioma, lung cancer or other asbestos-related diseases becomes an issue when asbestos is damaged or disturbed where asbestos fibers become airborne and can be inhaled. This typically occurs during damaging storms or during renovations. The EPA reports, “Asbestos is a human carcinogen with no safe level of exposure.”
Anyone exposed to asbestos faces a life-long risk of developing mesothelioma, an incurable cancer. Nearly 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with the deadly cancer each year.
If you are concerned about asbestos in your child’s school, contact your school administrator. According to the EPA, your local school district/local education agency must nominate a “designated person” to perform and delegate, if necessary, the management of asbestos in a school building. This person should be able to address any specific concerns you have about management of asbestos in your child’s school.