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?

Pennetta's visit sparked a county investigation that led to civil charges filed against the school board and Decon on August 20. The county, which is considering fining both the board and Decon $15,000 each for every day that there was a violation at the school, has yet to sanction either party. School board officials had a disciplinary hearing with the county, originally set for last Thursday, continued until next month.

The county didn't charge the school board with failure to notify the government, because Hahne "contributed" to the decision not to notify, according to county reports.

The controversy surrounding Building No. 2 was still, however, far from over. Another dispute -- this time over that wet and moldy ceiling tile -- was about to consume the Deerfield Middle project and, Pass contends, again put the school's students and staff at potential risk of asbestos exposure.

Joe Forkan

The ceiling tile in Building No. 2 is red on its back side and stamped "fire-rated" -- both signs, Diaz says, that it contains asbestos. Diaz says there is an untold amount of the red-backed tile -- potentially thousands of square feet -- at Deerfield Middle, and none of it was ever listed in the school's asbestos management plan. If the tile is, indeed, full of asbestos, school board staff may have been handling it -- and possibly breaking it -- in the presence of students for years. Ceiling tile is known to spread asbestos fibers in more abundance than any other building material, simply because it crumbles easily into dust. PTA vice president Swinford says that several of Deerfield Middle's roofs have leaked rain over the years and that ceiling tile surely has been replaced. "You know what happens when ceiling tile gets wet -- it crumbles," Swinford says.

Pass had tests done on the ceiling tile. The tests showed that it had contained as much as 5 percent asbestos, which puts it within federal regulations. When Pass demanded that the school board have the ceiling tiles removed prior to demolition, the board refused to approve the costly procedure. Instead EnHealth, on June 22, did its own tests on the ceiling tile. All of those samples, which were collected by EnHealth's Dan Norton, came back showing that the ceiling tile contained less than 1 percent asbestos -- though at least one came back at 0.9 percent, according to records. Then Hahne collected samples of the ceiling tile, and tests of those samples showed either only small traces or no asbestos at all.

Hahne, meanwhile, seemed to be taking an aversion to Diaz's inquiries -- which ultimately exposed Hahne's faulty asbestos formula. Hahne filed a complaint with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation stating that Diaz was handling asbestos after his certification had expired. Supervisor Jarrett Mack says he told Hahne not to file the complaint, as it would look like Hahne was retaliating against Diaz for raising health concerns at the school. "That complaint had absolutely nothing to do with the county, this agency, or myself," Mack says. "That was Mr. Hahne acting on his own." Hahne says he was just doing his duty by reporting Diaz. The DBPR threw out the complaint on October 8 and took no action against Diaz.

Pass continued to find disturbing information about asbestos in Building No. 2. In late June an asbestos consultant hired by Pass determined that one sample of air taken from the building contained 300 asbestos fibers per square millimeter of air -- more than four times the accepted 70-fiber reentry limit. Five air samples averaged more than 125 asbestos fibers per square millimeter of air. EnHealth responded to this information by doing its own tests, which showed only very small amounts of airborne asbestos. On July 30 EnHealth president Litrides declared in a letter to Gonzalez that the tests commissioned by Pass were "meaningless and of no value." Litrides also wrote that he doesn't consider the 70-fiber limit a "health" standard. Hahne also says he doesn't give credence to the 70-fiber limit -- though it is the widely accepted threshold of safety in the construction industry and the EPA maintains that any level of asbestos in the air at all is potentially unsafe. Even Rodriguez-Soto, the board's construction manager, says the 70-fiber limit is clearly the accepted standard for the entire construction industry.

As the battle over Building No. 2 deepened, the EPA stepped in to determine once and for all if there was a health risk at Deerfield Middle. EPA officials obtained ceiling tile samples from Pass, the school board, and the county and then conducted independent tests on each using the most accurate testing method available, which consists of burning off everything on the sample but asbestos. By weighing the asbestos left behind, the true percentage of asbestos in a material can be determined. Until then all the samples had been tested using an older method called Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM), which is a visible estimation made by a scientist looking through a microscope. The school board's own test results include a disclaimer stating that PLM test results are "subject to significant numerical uncertainty."

Gonzalez apparently didn't want to wait for the EPA results. In written correspondence school board officials and consultants directed Pass to demolish the building, repeatedly writing that Building No. 2 had been "rendered harmless." Hahne, too, gave his blessing to demolish the building, according to reports. Mack once again distanced himself from Hahne's actions, declaring that he felt all along that the school board should have removed the suspicious ceiling tile from the building. But Mack himself wrote in a letter to the school board's Gonzalez on July 26 -- at the height of the controversy -- that Building No. 2 could be demolished.

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