This School May Cause Cancer

The stalled reconstruction of Deerfield Middle School has littered the campus with a carcinogen. So why are students still there?

In November, school board staffers knew there was asbestos contamination in a storage area of Building No. 2 when half the building was occupied with students. Students and teachers were in the other half of the building and therefore likely not put directly at risk. But a full week passed before anything was done to contain the contamination. Numerous safety rules were broken.

And it was kept a secret.


Joe Forkan

On November 4, 1998, Deerfield Middle maintenance workers did something they are expressly forbidden by law to do: They handled asbestos-containing material. By federal law only trained asbestos workers in the employ of certified and licensed asbestos specialists are allowed to handle ACM in schools. The board's own Operations and Maintenance Plan states, in set-off capital letters, "MAINTENANCE WORKERS ARE NOT QUALIFIED TO PERFORM ANY ACTIVITY WHICH MAY DISTURB ASBESTOS-CONTAINING MATERIAL WITHIN THE SCHOOL."

But school board reports show that maintenance staff, while doing unspecified work in the unoccupied half of Deerfield Middle's Building No. 2, did disturb asbestos-containing pegboards, floor tile, and countertops -- causing what is called a "major asbestos fiber release episode." Such an event is defined as any disturbance of three square feet of ACM or more. The workers almost certainly were exposed to high levels of asbestos at the time. Students and teachers filled the other half of the building.

After this occurred school board staffers called EnHealth Environmental, the school board's asbestos consultant, to test the air in the building. One air sample came back showing 218 asbestos fibers per square millimeter of air -- a dangerously high level. To put it in perspective, federal law forbids reentry into a school building undergoing asbestos abatement if the inside air has an average of 70 or more asbestos fibers per square millimeter of air. The average of five air samples taken in five unoccupied classrooms on November 4 was 73 asbestos fibers per square millimeter of air, failing that standard. The building was, in common construction parlance, "hot."

When such an episode occurs at a school, numerous rules must be followed to ensure the safety of workers, teaching staff, and, of course, students. For instance, school board officials are supposed to evacuate students in the "area" of the asbestos episode. It is up to the asbestos consultant's discretion exactly what that area entails -- be it a room, a portion of a building, an entire building, or more. The area must then be sealed off, and work to clean the air must begin. According to Deerfield Middle's asbestos management plan, the board is also required to notify the appropriate state and federal officials, along with the Parent Teacher Association, of the incident.

Extensive federal regulations are in place to keep children safe from airborne asbestos, which is formed from naturally occurring minerals and can cause lung cancer. The inhaled asbestos fibers can't be dissolved in the lung. Instead those hard fibers stay in the lungs as tiny irritants, microscopic splinters. It normally takes 20 years or more for asbestos contamination in the lungs to progress to actual disease. Asbestos workers -- who used to be exposed to extremely high concentrations of asbestos dust over periods of years -- comprise the vast majority of the more than 170,000 documented asbestos deaths in the United States. Asbestos is currently the subject of much consternation in Europe, where hundreds of thousands of deaths are projected, and nine countries recently banned asbestos altogether.

It is unlikely that anyone at the school, including the maintenance workers directly exposed to unacceptably high levels of asbestos in the air, will contract cancer from what has happened at Deerfield Middle. But those strict regulations are in place for a reason. While it almost always takes a high level of exposure to asbestos over a long period of time to cause disease, there is one type of malignant cancer, mesothelioma, that scientists have determined can strike people who've had extremely limited exposure. These rare, wild-card cases are what have prompted the federal government to maintain that even a single asbestos fiber in the air is potentially harmful.

Buildings constructed before the late 1970s are generally still full of ACM. Asbestos was once known as the "magic fiber" for the strength, durability, and heat-resistance it gave to building products. Since the turn of the century, it has been put into thousands of building materials from ceiling panels to countertops to floor tiles to insulation to roofing. Those old buildings are generally safe today so long as the ACM isn't crumbling or broken, conditions which allow the harmful fibers to fly into the air, where they can invade lungs. That is why the federal government puts a high premium on knowing exactly where the ACM is in schools and places strict regulations on how it is removed.

Rather than follow its own regulations on November 4, board officials took a different tack: They did next to nothing, according to records. No student was removed from the building, no official was notified. Phil Swinford, the PTA's vice president and the father of a Deerfield Middle student, says he never heard a thing about the November incident.

And nothing was done to seal the storage half of the building to keep the asbestos fibers from escaping to other areas until November 11, when the board hired the asbestos-removal firm Decon to seal off four affected classrooms in Building No. 2. Oddly, a daily field report filed by Decon shows that Room No. 145 -- which had the extremely high 218 reading -- wasn't one of the rooms sealed. Two days later, on a Friday morning, Decon workers came back to the school, put on their own protective suits and facemasks, and removed 870 square feet of asbestos-containing countertop from an art room in the unoccupied section of the building, according to reports. Records also show that Decon removed asbestos-containing countertops that had previously been dismantled by the school's maintenance workers. The countertops, according to EnHealth field reports, were found "under a trash pile" in the building.

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